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The Last Stand

Jack Flaherty takes the mound tonight, trying to save the Cardinals’ season. We’ve been here before.

Divisional Series - St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves - Game Five Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Tonight, Jack Flaherty will take the mound for the Cardinals in Washington, attempting to pull the club back from the brink. The Redbirds currently face a 2-0 deficit, as the Nationals took both of the first two games of the series, right here in St. Louis. Going down 2-0 is bad enough; going down 2-0 when you had home field advantage is something else entirely.

So how did we get here? Well, there have been things that have gone wrong, for sure. There has been plenty of consternation expressed with the way Mike Shildt has managed the series, and that’s fair. Two starts in a row now he has left Adam Wainwright in the game far too long; it smacks of Matheny-era My Guy-ism, and it’s extremely frustrating to see. Overall I think Mike Shildt has done a great job as manager of this team in his first full season, but much of his in-game management still shows many of the same hallmarks of manager thinking that we were hoping to move away from. The playing time decisions I’m less vexed about, but the slow hook with starters, particularly now that we’re in crunch time, has been a real bugaboo.

More than anything, though, the offense has simply gone in the tank. In games two and three against Atlanta, the Cardinal offense scored one run in eighteen innings. They lost both games. In the first two games against Washington, they have scored one run in eighteen innings. They have lost both games. I think I’m beginning to see a pattern emerge.

For me, game two didn’t really sting, in terms of the hitting. Max Scherzer did what Max Scherzer often does, and sometimes when you run into Max Scherzer you simply aren’t going to score any runs. But to be shut down by Anibal Sanchez? And not 2013 Tigers Anibal Sanchez, but 2019 Nationals Anibal Sanchez? That’s not indicative in any way, shape, or form of an offense that could drive a championship-level team.

It appears as if, once again, the Cardinals will head into the offseason dogged by questions about the offense. In years past, it’s been the lack of a big bat to anchor a lineup of solid, productive players that produce an offense that usually ranked well by wRC+ and the like, but too often seemed to struggle when it came to actually producing runs. The club has added multiple big bats now, made hitting coach changes, swapped out struggling players for new blood. And still the production is a question. This year the falloff was driven by multiple players struggling, whether it was the seeming age-related decline of Matt Carpenter, Jose Martinez’s lagging power, Paul DeJong’s batted-ball woes, or the unabated struggles of Harrison Bader to hit a right-handed breaking ball. It’s all come up at one point or another in the postseason, and seems to very clearly spell out the reality of the 2019 Cardinals: this is a good team, but still a team with a few too many holes to be serious title contenders.

Today they turn from the past to the future. Adam Wainwright was brilliant his last time out — which could, quite easily, have been his last time out — and nearly willed the club to a victory all on his own. That was the past of this club. Adam Wainwright throwing to Yadier Molina has been more or less a constant of this team since the Bush administration. Jack Flaherty, meanwhile, is the future. The new Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals, the intense, glaring visage of what the Redbirds hope to be from here on. This postseason has been a nice little coming out party for Flaherty; what the second half of the season announced to the league has been seen by a national audience since the playoffs began. Jack Flaherty is going to be a household name for awhile now, so get used to it.

So we have the future, trying to carry the past along a little while longer. This has been the essential dichotomy of the 2019 Cardinals in a nutshell, really. On the one hand, this is a tremendously talented young team, with one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball at just age 26, a staff ace who is all of 23, Dakota Hudson establishing himself as a major league starter at 24, and a former Stanford shortstop proving Cardinal Devil Magic isn’t dead quite yet at age 24 himself. That’s to say nothing of the young outfield talent already on display, with more on the way. On the other hand, this is a group who came into the season expecting big contributions from a 33 year old third baseman. Whose catcher is seemingly ageless, but also really 37 years old. Who gave a 38 year old starting pitcher 170 innings. Nearly every team has a mix of young and old players, of course, but rarely does it seem so stark as watching the 2019 Cardinals.

The Cardinals have come far this season, far enough I have no complaints, no regrets. An NLCS berth is not a thing most teams can reasonably expect, and we would do well to remember that. All the same, this club is now backed into a corner, and it feels like so many of the questions we’ve been asking all along are the same questions the club faces now, and heading into the offseason, whenever that may be.

Could the Cardinals win four of five against the Nationals? Of course they could. Teams go on streaks all the time, and these two clubs were only separated by three games in terms of 2019 Pythagorean record. This is not a mismatch, much as it has looked to be at times these first two games. All the same, it doesn’t really feel like this club is going to climb out of this hole. They do, however, have the right guy on the mound today if they plan on trying. At the very least, maybe we’ll get a few more moments of glory as this season heads off into the night.