Cardinals Dreaming of a 2004 Red Sox Comeback in NLCS

The Cardinals have been awful in the first three games of the NLCS. So awful, that any thoughts of a comeback are completely foolish. But there is precedent...
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There’s that old line about how everything that happens once can never happen again and everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time. The St. Louis Cardinals, then, are in the position of determining whether coming back from down three games to none in a postseason series is still in baseball’s realm of possibility.

It has, of course, already happened once. The 2004 Boston Red Sox gave us Four Nights in October. But 15 years can feel like a small eternity in baseball. The men who were in the spotlight for that series—David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, Alex Rodriguez—are the ones offering commentary on television for this one. Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty had then just turned nine. Paul DeJong was 10, and Marcell Ozuna was 13. Even St. Louis’ elder statesman, Adam Wainwright, was still in Triple-A. So… can this be the group to do it again? Can any group?

“There is precedent for it,” St. Louis skipper Mike Shildt said after the loss in Game 3. “But this team has created its own precedent this year in a lot of things we’ve done throughout the course of the year. So take care of business tomorrow, and then who knows, right?”

There are, to put it gently, some clear differences between the 2019 NLCS and the 2004 ALCS. In its first few games, Boston was outscored 32-16, which, while certainly demoralizing, at least demonstrated an ability to score runs, if not so much of the ability to suppress them. By comparison, St. Louis has been outscored 13-2, with each of their two runs coming from errors, rather than any work off of a dynamite pitching staff. “We’ve got to get a lead at some point in this series,” Shildt said. “Hard to win a game if you can’t get a lead.” That the Cardinals haven’t been able to do that yet has been widely (and reasonably) attributed to the Nationals’ absurd rotation. But there’s been more to it than that.

The Cardinals entered Game 3 with a 2-for-45 output against Nationals’ starters. (They finished with the only slightly less embarrassing 9-for-73.) The Cardinals’ offense, while perfectly capable in the regular season, was never the foundation of their success; that, instead, had been just about everything else. And “everything else” has been lackluster.

“We haven’t been able to play our brand of baseball in full,” Shildt said. “We haven’t been able to get in rhythm or sync.”

For St. Louis, that brand of baseball had been closely tied to baserunning and defense. The Cardinals tied for most stolen bases in the NL; they ranked near the top in their rate of taking the extra base and near the bottom in outs on the bases. That’s been largely absent in the NLCS—and while, of course, it’s hard to exhibit any good baserunning without getting on base in the first place, there have still been some clear missed chances here. (See: Marcell Ozuna getting caught in a rundown shortly after his leadoff double in the second inning of Game 3, which had presented arguably the best chance for the team to take a lead at any point in the series.) The situation with their defense—among the best in baseball in the regular season—is similar, packed not with obvious errors but simply with missed chances for added value. The Cardinals haven’t hit, but, perhaps more damning, they haven’t looked remotely like themselves beyond that.

“There is no concession speech being written… We still have more baseball to play,” Shildt said after Game 3.

The question is just how much.