Entering the season’s final scheduled game, the Cardinals needed to win, but they also needed the Giants to lose to force a playoff game Monday night for the second Wild Card spot.
The Cardinals took care of their affairs Sunday, playing the way they had intended to all season.. Unfortunately for them, so did the Giants, making for an emotionally complicated afternoon.
St. Louis can’t point to the end of their season—a four game winning streak—to find an answer for why it concluded so prematurely. For their finale, the Cardinals did everything they could. For a slew of reasons, it wasn’t enough.
“There’s no disappointment in winning the last four games,” manager Mike Matheny said. “Obviously we had something to do with putting ourselves in that position, but part of my message to the guys is how proud I am of having them having their backs up against the wall and watching the resolve, watching the fight.”
The Cardinals continued that fight even after it became evident the war had beven lost. The Giants jumped out to an early lead over the Dodgers Sunday and never looked back, forcing St. Louis to stare down that deficit on the out-of-town scoreboard all afternoon.
No matter what the Cardinals did, unless things turned around out west, their season was ending.
“You can’t fix that,” Matheny said. “You can’t fake it. It is what it is. You heard some rumblings, ‘That’s a team that’s had trouble holding leads.’ I think that was said a time or two. ‘Keep playing the game.’ That was really our focus. Take care of our own business. And we did. The guys played very well today.”
Adam Wainwright was a central figure in the Cardinals 10-4 win over the Pirates Sunday. With his first quality start in more than three weeks, the veteran went out on a successful note, hurling six innings of two-run ball. Though he admitted to keeping constant tabs on the scoreboard, Wainwright’s mentality was fixated on the task at hand.
“In my mind, we were going to win today and the Giants were going to lose,” Wainwright said. “That was how I went into this game thinking – that we had to win today and we were going to have another chance to play. We did our job. We won the game. But the Giants also won. But I did want to leave this season on a good note, and I feel like I did that.”
Wainwright reached eight strikeouts in a game for the first time since July 21. Though he wasn’t credited with the win—Jonathan Broxton ironically earned that distinction after coughing up the 4-2 lead with which Wainwright entrusted him—Wainwright’s performance Sunday inspired the belief he could have been an asset to the team had it qualified for a postseason series.
“Tonight was the best I’ve felt all year, unfortunately,” Wainwright said. “I was zipping my fastball in there and spinning my breaking ball good. I had a good, tight, hard cutter going. That’s what I would have liked to have carried over into the postseason. But, you can’t.”
When Broxton gave up a two-run home run to Pittsburgh’s John Jaso in the seventh inning, the Cardinals battled back despite the game having no grander significance. St. Louis poured on six runs in the bottom of the seventh to secure the win, padding the league’s eighth-best run differential in the process.
The fans appreciated the effort, cheering ferociously as the home team piled it on, despite them fighting for pride alone. Then, after the game was clearly in-hand, the crowd shifted its focus to pure ceremony.
With a pinch-hit opportunity looming in the eighth, they began chanting for Matt Holliday, desiring to thank the longtime Cardinal outfielder one final time for his contributions.
In the ninth, Matheny acquiesced. Though he didn’t give Holliday an at-bat, the manager sent the seven-time All-Star out to his defensive position in left field in the top half. For several seconds, Holliday stood alone on the field, as his teammates waited in the dugout while the fans went wild. Tommy Pham replaced Holliday before a pitch was thrown, but the ovation continued through embraces and handshakes, even after the 36 year old was long out of sight.
The move surprised een Holliday, who truly did not expect to be involved in Sunday’s game.
“I don’t even think (Matheny) knew that that was an option,” Holliday said. “I think when the fans started yelling my name, he felt like he better do something. So yeah, it was kind of impromptu.”
Holliday was emotional about the send-off, which he said would be hard to script any better.
“I just really appreciate it,” Holliday said. “I’ve given everything I had and I’ve tried to play the game the right way. I love the organization and I’m really proud of a lot of the things we were able to accomplish in my time here. It does feel good, for people to appreciate who I am.”
It was another memorable moment in a season that, despite its dispiriting end, was full of them. Some, like Aledmys Diaz’s grand slam or Matt Holliday’s pinch-hit homer, are fresh in our memories. There were many more throughout the summer—Matt Adams’ walk-off blast in the 16th inning comes to mind—that will be recalled years from now in the highlight reels of our minds.
Ultimately, the team fell short. Too many miscues and missed opportunities along the way precluded the Cardinals from a chance at a postseason run. But it could be heard it in the applause as the players tipped their caps to the fans after the season’s final out: even in this maddening, befuddling, exasperating season, there were moments that will last. There were moments that mattered. There is plenty to be proud of.
“I think it was reemphasized the character of people we have in that room and how guys just figured out a way to get the job done. That’s what we ask. We ask for their effort and their preparation and how they compete and how they represent this jersey,” Matheny said. “That means a lot to us and I think they went over the top in how they finished this season.