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Stumbling, Falling.

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The Cards tripped rounding third, and never touched home plate.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

And just like that, it was over.

I’ve written those same words every year now, for how many years I don’t recall. It’s the sentence that comes to mind for me every time a Cardinal season comes to a close. Short of winning a championship, that is; the times I’ve gotten to witness a title and a parade I don’t have time for echoing statements of loss and melancholy. But every other year — and let’s face it; championships are rare and fleeting things — this is what I think when there will be no tomorrow for the Cardinals.

And just like that, it was over.

I’m not going to lie; this one hurts this year. More than most. More than I expected. Certainly more than the last two seasons.

Yes, two years ago the Cards came up a single game short of fall’s grand tournament, and that was a punch in the gut. And there are a lot of fans who seem horribly distressed by the success of the Cubs, which made 2016 all the worse for them. Me, though, I don’t really feel that same way. Don’t get me wrong; I can’t stand the Cubs, and root against them at every turn, but it never felt to me like Chicago getting good was some reflection on the state of the Cardinal franchise. If your rival franchise goes through a long rebuild, executes well, and then gets good through a combination of good planning and some good fortune, that doesn’t make you worse, or dumber, or less dedicated to winning. I get that the nature of competitive sports means you’re always measuring your own success against that of others, but you can’t force another team to stay bad. So 2016 to me felt like a near-miss, and a real kick in the teeth, but not some great tragedy.

Last year, things just felt sort of hopeless. Dark. The Cards were mediocre, their efforts to push beyond mediocrity had been rebuffed, Dexter Fowler was their biggest acquisition (which is not to slight Dex, but he’s a complementary player under any circumstances), and the organisation seemed utterly blind to the field manager’s bizarre blind spots and one-track mind. No, they still weren’t a bad team, but they definitely weren’t a good team. The darkness was mitigated by the emergence of Tommy Pham, but it still felt like the franchise was floundering a bit, stuck in neutral, trying to turn the corner or get over the hump or some other metaphor, and yet failing to ever make that turn or hit the downslope or catch a tailwind.

This year was, in many ways, a continuation of what last season produced, at least for the first few months. Last year’s hero became this year’s zero. (Yes, that’s way exaggerating how bad Pham’s season was, but zero is the rhyme, so zero is what I will go with.) Matt Carpenter looked busted, Fowler looked like he’d aged five years from October to April, the same man was in the dugout, seemingly immune to any pressure, and the club spent $14 million on the worst reliever in baseball on Opening Day. In other words, 2017 felt like slide toward irrelevance, buoyed only by a few bright spots here and there, and 2018 felt like that slide picking up speed.

And then, everything changed. At the beginning of July, the Cardinals felt like a .500 club, mired in a general go-nowhere morass of a season. A month later, they had a new manager with at least an ability to explain the why behind his decisions — and generally much better decisions in the first place — a mostly-remade bullpen, a new center fielder, the hottest hitter on the planet in the leadoff spot (in fairness, Carpenter had gotten hot before the managerial switch), and a clubhouse that I imagine had to smell like the freshest linens in the world following a couple years of ass-clenched flop sweat slowly seeping into the fabric.

The team felt revitalised, played revitalised, and the fanbase followed. I bought in. I’ll bet you did, too. Harrison Bader caught everything within a two-mile radius, Matt Carpenter hit more bombs in one month than the country of Uruguay did this whole year (what? Uruguay doesn’t have baseball? Shhhh.), and the bullpen just stopped allowing runs for awhile. Admittedly, the underlying numbers on the ‘pen were never that good, but as long as the runs stay off the board, the wins pile up, and whether they’re backed by theoretical physics or not those Ws still count. Kolten Wong played with a confidence we basically never saw under Mike Matheny. Miles Mikolas just continued to plug along, doing his mid-90s Bob Tewksbury impression (that’s mid-90s velocity, not mid-90s years, though I guess either one works well enough). There was a whole lot to like about the new Cardinals of August 2018.

And now, here we are. The Cards ended up three games shy of a Wild Card spot, and all the damage was done the last six games. A week ago, their playoff odds were roughly 80%. Now October looms, and there will be no baseball in St. Louis.

And just like that, it was over.

This one hurts. The hope was the cruelest twist; watching a team finish at 83 wins and six games out would have sucked, but at least we would have been spared that final, lurching freefall, when the rug came fully out from under our feet. But watching a club shooting toward 90+ wins, only to burn up and burn out in the final moments, that’s a tough one to take. Baseball is the sport most like life, and thus the end always feel the most like loss. This was sudden, sharp, a turn for the worse when the prognosis seemed to point toward a recovery.

And through it all, it still felt all the while like this Cardinal team was just. so. close. The Rockies went 9-1 to close the year, the Brewers won their last seven in a row, and I saw those clubs play this season. The Cardinals are as good as either, without a doubt in my mind. Milwaukee has a bullpen the Cards can’t touch, but I don’t feel the overall talent level of the Brewers is any higher than El Birdos’. The Rockies make as little sense as any club in baseball; so many bad decisions, so many things done wrong and gone wrong, but they ran off an historic last couple weeks and snuck in. Honestly, Colorado offends my sensibilities as a believer in rational team construction, but as I believe I said earlier, the Ws count, whether we think they should or not.

I feel like there’s a bright future out there for the Cardinals, I really do. In the coming weeks, I’ll start churning out articles about the future, about the offseason, about moves I think the team should make, about philosophical directions represented by one single bullpen trade or another. I’m sure the rest of the staff here at VEB Industries will likely do something very similar. There’s a path to a very bright, very good future for this team. It’s not a sure thing, but there is definitely a path. Hard decisions will have to be made, though. The easiest thing to do would be to roll this 87-89 win team right back out again next year, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if they did. There’s a path to a much better future out there, though, if the front office and ownership are willing to make more hard decisions. The hardest one, seemingly, has already happened, when the organisation finally decided to cut ties with the man running things from the dugout. That alone is a significant bright spot, and points toward a more aggressive approach from the organisation.

But for now, that very bright possible future is hard to see. What I can see now is a team that just fell on its face the final week of the season, losing six of their last seven games, with an exhausted young pitching corps, an outfield situation that needs further pruning to lose a defensive liability and a very expensive misstep, and an offense that still feels like it’s got a bad spark plug somewhere, even if the numbers in aggregate were just fine this season. What I can see now is all that hope of a week ago, when it seemed like a simple 3-3 run over the last two series should have been enough to ensure a playoff berth, dashed against the rocks of a brutal collapse.

Right now, the 2018 season is still too raw, too sore, to be viewed with equanimity, at least for me. This one hurts. And I think it’s going to take a little while before it doesn’t any more. It was all just so sudden. It felt like a corner had been turned, and then just like that rallying NBA club I wrote about a month or so ago, numerical reality kicked in, a 3-3 stretch turned into a 1-5, and all the work the Cards had done climbing back into contention from .500 in mid-July was for naught. The slog had become a glorious sprint, but the last ten yards the lactic acid buildup became too much. Legs slowed, trembled, stumbled, gave out.

And just like that, it was over.