For about five seconds on Thursday night at Busch Stadium, it appeared that the Cardinals had received a miraculous reprieve. With the team trailing 2–1 against the Cubs in the 11th inning, rookie Paul DeJong—the owner of a team-high 24 home runs despite not debuting until May 28—hit a long drive to deep centerfield, an apparent game-tying home run. Alas, Cubs centerfielder Leonys Martin timed the ball perfectly, snaring it before it could go over the wall:
With that, the Cardinals were eliminated from the NL wild card race by their fiercest rivals, the final indignity in a series during which the Cubs came to town and eliminated them from the NL Central race on Monday and clinched on Wednesday. At 82–77, the Cardinals were good, not great—and more importantly, not good enough at the right times.
Prior to the season-crushing series, the Cardinals had gone 14–8 in September. At the close of play last Friday, they were 81–72, half a game ahead of the Brewers (81–71) and 1 1/2 games behind the Rockies (83–71) for the second wild card spot. A pair of losses to the Pirates prior to the series loss to the Cubs meant that their season hopes effectively ended with a 1–5 skid, but for the real culprit, look no further than the season's first two weeks.
While the Cardinals beat the Cubs—the reigning world champions—4–3 on Opening Day via Randal Grichuk's walkoff single in the bottom of the ninth, they followed that by losing six of their next seven to the Cubs, Reds and Nationals. After being swept by the Yankees in a three-game series in the Bronx, the Cardinals were just 3–9 to start the season. At the time, I noted that in the history of the wild card era (1995 onward), only three out of 53 teams who started the season 3–9 or worse climbed off the mat to reach the playoffs. With the Cardinals' elimination and that of the Blue Jays, who began the year 2–10, the tally is now three out of 55, with only the 2000 Giants (3–9), 2007 Phillies (3–9) and 2001 A's (2–10) recovering.
Mind you, a 3–9 record—or even worse—at any other time of year is hardly fatal to teams' postseason hopes. Six of this year's postseason qualifiers, namely the Astros, Yankees, Twins, Dodgers, Diamondbacks and whichever team secures the second NL wild card spot (either the Rockies or Brewers) all had at least one such skid. The Twins and Diamondbacks had two non-overlapping 3–9 stretches, the Rockies had one plus a 2–10 faceplant, and the Yankees worst 12-game stretch was 2–10 as well. The Dodgers, owners of the best record in baseball (102–57), had several overlapping 1-11, 2-10 and 3-9 stretches in August and September.
This year was hardly unique. Last year saw the Cubs (three overlapping 3–9 stretches in June and July), Giants (2–10 and two unrelated 3–9 stretches), Rangers (2–10 in July) and Blue Jays (3–9 in September)—four of the 10 postseason teams, including the eventual champions—survive such skids. In 2015, six of the 10 postseason teams had 3–9 or 2–10 stretches; the World Series-winning Royals were one of the three with two such stretches. As I summarized, "Six of the last seven championship-winning teams—all of them since 2010 except the '12 Giants—have gone 3–9 or worse at one point in their otherwise storybook seasons."
Still, it gets late early for teams that start 3–9, and even expanding to include the two-division era (1969–1993, excluding the 1981 strike year), only the 1974 Pirates (2–10) and 1991 Twins (3–9) escaped doom, with the latter the only one of these teams to win a championship.
While there's no definitive answer as to why a 3–9 start is so much harder to overcome than any other 12-game slide, it's clear that such slumps generate more attention and perhaps more panic. Maybe the Cardinals did, maybe they didn’t, but they join the ranks that couldn’t get to the postseason after losing nine of their first 12. Their main early-season lineup tweak, aside from placing slow-starting third baseman Jhonny Peralta on the disabled list due to a respiratory ailment, was to remove Matt Adams from the leftfield mix after he made it abundantly clear that he didn't belong there. He was traded to the Braves on May 20, at which point he had hit a thin .292/.340/.396. While he homered in the second and third games of his Atlanta tenure, even his .269/.313/.541 line with 19 homers for Atlanta yielded only 0.7 WAR, matching his 2016 full-season mark and hardly irreplaceable. At best, playing him at first base more often, with Matt Carpenter shifting back to third, would have left Jedd Gyorko (who quickly seized Peralta's job) scrambling for at-bats. By the time the Cardinals were eliminated, Gyorko's 3.6 WAR was second among the team's position players behind the pleasantly surprising Tommy Pham (6.3).
As a unit, the Cardinals' offense was a solid one, producing 4.72 runs per game (seventh in the league) with a 100 OPS+ (tied for third). Of their regulars, only rightfielder Stephen Piscotty (90 OPS+) and catcher Yadier Molina (96 OPS+) were below average, and the latter still outhit the average NL catcher while providing above-average defense (+ 2 DRS) and pitch framing (+4 runs)—though, in his age-34 season, not peak level performance. Piscotty (.237/.345/.371 in 394 PA) and Grichuk (95 OPS+ and a .239/.287/.470 line in 436 PA) were both disappointments, but thanks to Pham (.311/.413/.527, 147 OPS+) and Dexter Fowler (122 OPS+), Cardinals outfielders collectively hit .265/.350/.465 for the league’s fifth-best OPS.
DeJong's power helped to offset the struggles and eventual demotion of 2016 rookie sensation Aledmys Diaz.
Indeed, Diaz might own the most disappointing season of any Cardinals position player, having sunk from .300/.369/.510 with a 134 OPS+, -3 DRA and 3.5 WAR—not to mention an All-Star selection—to .263/.265/.399 with an 81 OPS+, -10 DRS and -0.6 WAR. That's a four-win drop, offset partially by DeJong's 2.5 WAR. The defense as a whole, which endured a great deal of criticism from the local media for some obvious fundamental lapses, posted a league-average .687 defensive efficiency but ranked third in the league in DRS (+32), with shortstop (-8 DRS) and centerfield (-13 DRS overall, including -18 from Fowler) the only positions in the red.
The rotation was among the league's better ones, ranking fourth in ERA, FIP and innings (4.06, 4.16 and 904 2/3, respectively). Carlos Martinez was their only starter to post an ERA+ of 100 or better in 2016, but they got above-average run prevention from four of their five regular starters this season, all of whom made at least 26 starts. Call-up Luke Weaver (132 ERA+ in nine starts and three relief appearances) outpitched Mike Leake (101 ERA+ in 26 starts), who was traded to the Mariners on August 30, with St. Louis eating $17 million of the roughly $56 million remaining on his deal. Adam Wainwright (83 ERA+ in 23 turns) was the laggard, and was pulled from the rotation after his August 17 start.
The bullpen was far more flawed, even with a 3.85 ERA and 3.95 FIP (sixth and fifth in the league, respectively). Seung-hwan Oh was cuffed for a 4.10 ERA while converting just 20 of 24 save chances, and Trevor Rosenthal blew out his ulnar collateral ligament in mid-August shortly after reclaiming his old job. Cardinals relievers allowed a .334 wOBA (weighted on-base average) in high-leverage situations, the league's fifth-highest mark and 15 points higher than any other NL contender. Even so, their five losses when leading in the ninth inning were fewer than the Nationals (six), Brewers (seven).
At 82–77, the Cardinals are hardly a bad team, though their four-game shortfall relative to their Pythagorean record (86–73) is the NL largest save for the Phillies (-5), and likewise for their 29 losses (against 23 wins) in one-run games. When you're a day late and a dollar short, it's not hard to find any number of moments or splits that could have flipped the outcome of their season. Some of them might be flukes, others just season-to-season variance.
From April 17 to September 22, the Cardinals played at a 90-win pace, going 78–63. But they couldn't sustain that clip, which would have been good enough to secure a wild card berth, for long enough, and ultimately couldn't outrun their early stumble. Now an organization that made 12 postseason appearances and won four pennants and two titles from 2000–2015 is on the outside looking in for the second year in a row—the first time since 2007-08 it's happened for them—which should make for a soul-searching winter. General manager John Mozeliak and company have to ask themselves whether Mike Matheny is the right man for the managerial job; whether or not to bring back pending free agent Lance Lynn; whether age and concussions have diminished Molina (who is about to start a pricey contract extension); what happened to the previously productive Piscotty, Grichuk and Diaz, how to how to fix a bullpen whose problems have now spanned multiple seasons; and how, at the end of the day, they can catch up with the Cubs and the other National League teams they’ll be watching on TV this October.