ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) - The 2017 Cardinals have been many things. They have been a disappointment, starting the season 3-9. They have been redemptive; winning 18 of the next 24. They have gone 5-8 against the lowly Reds but 4-2 against the competitive Rox. They’ve gone 1-2 against the struggling Orioles but split with the contending Nats. Most recently they won eight straight–only to then drop the next three.
The Cardinals will say they know who they are inside, but they’ve yet to convert that self-evaluation into reality.
Now’s their chance.
Wednesday’s loss to the Red Sox in Boston was unequivocally brutal. St. Louis led 4-2 in the ninth, as they had since the third inning. Trevor Rosenthal, who had not surrendered an earned run since July 20, was in to dot the I’s and cross the T’s.
A homer started it. A walk followed. Coaches came to the mound and Rosenthal was pulled from action, some unknown ailment forcing his early departure.
Zach Duke came in. A strikeout, a walk. Zach Duke came out.
John Brebbia came in. An umpire decided he needed a ‘break’, calling his own timeout before an 0-2 pitch with two outs. St. Louis’ dugout erupted, Mike Matheny was ejected.
A pop up followed. Then, so close to an escape, Brebbia surrendered Mookie Betts’ 34th double.
The lead runner scored easily, but Tommy Pham barehanded the ricochet off the Green Monster and heaved the ball back toward the infield. DeJong took the relay and fired home, short-hopping the throw to Molina. The toss arrived in time, but the Cardinal backstop was unable to snag the ball off the bounce before the tag. Instead, it glanced off his mitt and he slapped an empty glove on Jackie Bradley Jr., who was the winning run.
It was a reminder of how merciless baseball can be; a heartbreak that at once felt both impossible and inevitable. The Cardinals descended into the tunnel at Fenway Park at a crossroads. Two nights ago, they headed to an airport as contenders. Wednesday, the world is once again wondering if they are pretenders.
Eight straight wins is no small feat; it tied the best streak in a decade for the franchise. But the threat in the north has an easy path to victory, and competitive play matters little if it isn’t against good teams.
The Cardinals have always believed outsiders have it wrong. They’ve consistently seen themselves as a good team under performing, despite what fans and the media think. Get a few guys hot, get the right ones healthy, get all the gears turning in the right direction simultaneously and machine will roar to life.
But against Boston, the machine’s flaws were thrown into sharp relief. Tuesday, they had no answer for the Red Sox offense and could not mount a counterattack against Rick Porcello, the American League leader in losses, hits surrendered and runs given up. Wednesday, they melted down in the final inning, undone by injury and underperformance.
The resurgent Redbirds, ever-so-briefly tied for the NL Central lead, are again anemic . Like a cheating spouse, they fell back into bad habits and engendered distrust.
Four games in Pittsburgh await.
120 games have passed, but the Cardinals will define their 2017 over the upcoming weekend. They’ve lost two games against a good team- one they laid down for and another they deserved to win. They’re within striking distance of the division and have to go through a rival to cement contention. The assembled evidence says it won’t happen. Their belief says it will. Their season hangs in the balance.