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A Slight Feeling of Helplessness

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Maybe you’ve heard — the Cards didn’t win the NLCS.

MLB: NLDS-St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Initially, I had planned to write about Mike Shildt’s decision-making in the NLCS. He made some odd decisions, to my eyes; leaving Wainwright in longer than he should have, a potentially too-aggressive intentional walk in the deciding game, bringing Wainwright in mid-inning in the same game. But honestly, the Cardinals just got blitzed, and as much fun as it is to go through the math of some marginal decisions, I can’t bring myself to care too much about how efficient or inefficient Shildt was at a few coin flips while the team lost the series by an aggregate seventy-seven billion runs.

Thinking about these small margins got me to thinking about the Cardinals’ entire season, and how I was sometimes able to convince myself, as the Nationals laughed and danced and generally looked like the better team, that I could have seen this coming, could have predicted the postseason would go based on how the regular season went.

Of course we’d beat the Braves; that’s just the kind of team the Braves are. Of course when exposed to the true test of the postseason, the Cardinals would wilt; that’s just the kind of team the Cardinals are. They weren’t a strong offense, and if you’d paid attention to them all year, you’d know that they would melt as soon as they had to face a real baseball team.

Except of course that’s nonsense. The Cardinals’ offense was deeply medium all year, but it wasn’t a tire fire. If there was a silly narrative about their offense during the year, it was that they struggled against poor pitchers while excelling against aces. Heck, they put five earned runs on Max Scherzer in September, fueled by two home runs, a mythical type of hit that supposedly existed in baseball before the 2019 playoffs.

Trying to piece together a coherent narrative based on 162 games of grinding, probabilistic striving and then four frantic postseason games just doesn’t work. Sometimes a team’s greatest flaws are exposed in the postseason, sure, but sometimes four games of baseball just happen. The vaunted Cardinal defense was pretty awful in the playoffs, with errors left and right, and good luck squaring that with the regular season.

Heck, just look at the bullpen and you’ll know that you can’t read too much into nine games. The team’s best pitchers this postseason were Ryan Helsley and Andrew Miller, both of whom had a 0.00 ERA. Helsley struck out eight in 5 ⅓ innings; Miller six in five. They each allowed only a solitary hit and no home runs. Name a Cardinals fan who was comfortable with Miller on the mound, and congratulations! You’ve named a liar. And yet, he was fine.

So no, I don’t have some grand overarching theme that explains to you, the discerning reader, why something I picked up in Jack Flaherty’s postgame press conference in June foretold this eventuality. I can’t tell you why Jeff Albert’s style led to the Cardinals suddenly massively underperforming offensively in four brutal games after the offense was fine, if uninspiring, all year. There will be plenty of time for those takes later, plenty of other authors to write them. What I do feel qualified to talk about is how sometimes don’t work out the way we want them to, try as we might.

I like to imagine that I roughly understand how the team felt as the Nationals inexorably pulled ahead. All year they had gone about their business, and basically it worked. This team was undoubtedly playoff caliber, if not the clear best team in the NL Central then certainly co-worthy of winning the division. They had great defense, good pitching, enough hitting -- every day they came to work and punched the clock, and more often than not it ended in a victory.

Against the Nationals, their behavior probably didn’t change. They used the same exercise bands, drank the same clubhouse coffee, not the stuff they put out in the lobby but the good stuff, reserved for players only. They warmed up the same way, took BP and fielded grounders and did weird boat row stretches with baseball bats. And the thing that mostly worked all season suddenly didn’t work, not at all.

The feeling of doing the same thing you’ve always done and getting abysmal results isn’t unique to baseball. We all think we have control over our lives, that if we control our inputs just so, we’ll know the outputs. File the right report, manipulate the right spreadsheet, pull the right lever or drive the right way, and things will go right. Your boss is a jerk, but if you just handle them the right way, say the right thing at the exact right moment, they’ll appreciate you more, realize how hard and how well you’re working.

Except life obviously doesn’t work like that. Your spreadsheet is perfect, a place for every cell and every cell in its place, but the product it’s supporting was dead on arrival. You say the exact right thing to your boss, but someone rear-ended their car this morning on the way to work, and nothing you say is going to fix that. Heck, maybe your company just doesn’t need workers like you anymore, and no amount of care or extra time is going to fix that.

It’s always lurking there in our lives, just below the surface; the saying “right place, wrong time” exists for a reason, after all. We don’t have full control over our lives, even if it feels like we should. We have advantages and disadvantages that are intrinsic, and some that are happenstance, none of which we have any control over. The world’s unfair some times, lots of times, and all our petty scheming and striving can’t change that.

But if you don’t think about it too much, and aren’t dealing with hardship when you stop to consider life’s fairness, you might not notice it. When good things happen, it’s natural to feel you’ve earned them, and that feeling stacks up over time and makes things feel like destiny, like the universe has order and logical rules govern your advancement through it.

Sports makes it clear that this is fiction, and no sport more so than baseball. The worst team in the league still goes home, on sixty-ish nights a year, having beaten a team better than them. It’s not because they’re more talented, or because they tried really hard that one time. They’re tremendously talented every night (just, the other teams are more talented)! They try hard every night! Baseball, at its core, is simply unpredictable. You might take the same swing at the same fastball twice, and end up with a foul ball and a dinger.

It goes deeper than that, too. You might assemble the same team twice, only to find they’re an 85-win pile of scrubs once and a 97-win juggernaut another time. You simply can’t know ahead of time what’s going to happen after, even if you work your butts off -- you can only make probabilistic predictions.

When I think of the 2019 Cardinals, I’ll remember that they made the NLCS; it was a fun season, after all, and getting to experience the rush of the playoffs was a big part of that. I’ll remember that they lost in that series, too, that the Nationals walked all over them on a big stage. But I won’t remember that last part very much. That ended the season, and who wants to dwell on endings?

I’m going to remember dumb stuff -- Paul DeJong making his first All Star game and literally never lifting his bat while taking a walk, the most un-DeJong outcome imaginable. Alex Reyes punching a wall and hurting himself. I’ll remember Kris Bryant saying there was nothing to do in St. Louis, the kind of petty villainy that makes baseball fun without making the stakes unreasonably high. I’ll remember Ozuna’s grin and Bader’s joy, and Jack Flaherty’s maybe-trying-too-hard-to-be-tough persona.

If I remember specific games, it’ll be weird ones -- I don’t really care about wins or losses, but the game where Ozuna jumped onto and then off of the wall for no good reason will stick with me. The times Flaherty would pinch run and then be hilariously bad at it, I’ll remember those two. The three Goldschmidt home runs against the Brewers right at the beginning of the season? That’ll stick with me too.

But I just don’t have it in me to remember the endpoint, the time where the Cardinals tried as hard as they ever could, did everything in their power to win, and it just didn’t work. I don’t want that to be how I remember this team, and I have limited space in my brain, so I just won’t. There’s no greater moral to this team, nothing we can learn about the players’ true grit -- they played some baseball, and the other team lives in a big house too, and the Nats just happened to be better on the four days they played each other.

This doesn’t mean I’m letting Shildt and John Mozeliak off the hook; Shildt could stand to work on his tactics and Mozeliak’s recent contract extension spree looks to be ill-conceived. Aside from that, it was a great season in my eyes. The team was a lot of fun, I watched meaningful baseball halfway through October, and I didn’t have to watch a single game whose outcome truly didn’t matter. Plus, the Cardinals are a great reminder of that helplessness in all of our lives. Sometimes you play well and the other team plays better, or the breaks don’t go your way. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the ride, though.