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A Tale of Two Teams

The fragility of baseball success was on full display during Wednesday’s Cardinals-Nats game

St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The Cardinals are off to a tremendous start, sitting in first place in the first week of May on the precipice of their first Cubs series of the season. The lineup has been efficient and well-rounded, the bullpen is locking down wins, and the starting pitching is at least starting to find a little traction the last few weeks.

It hasn’t always been that way. The last three years have taught us that success in baseball constantly hangs in the balance. Baseball is beautifully ordered, and thus highly predictable. In any given year, you can have a very good idea of how most players and teams will perform within a certain expectation. It’s the variance and the sequencing of that order that injects chaos. Everything goes as planned until it doesn’t, and then all hell breaks loose. Never was that more evident than on Wednesday night at Nats Park.

The Cardinals took down the Nats 5-1 to win the third game of the series, improving to 20-10 on the season and sinking the Nats’ record to 12-17. If you look at the box score, it was a fairly mundane game. The Cardinals plated three in the first inning, Miles Mikolas yielded just one run in six innings, Harrison Bader and Marcell Ozuna found some success at the plate... nothing outlandish really happened.

Except it was outlandish. Three plays shifted the entire game, and all three were emblematic of the way the season is going for both the Cardinals and Nats.

Play #1

It didn’t take long for the first event to occur. In the first inning, Ozuna came up to the plate with first and second base packed with Pauls (DeJong at first, Goldschmidt at second). He lofted a fliner (fly ball/line drive) to the opposite field for what should have been the second out of the inning. Instead, this is what happened:

Immensely talented and athletic Nats’ youngster Victor Robles misjudged it, approached gingerly at first, and then had to turn on the jets to make up ground. By the time it arrived, he had to dive, and his miscue had resulted in a two-bagger for Ozuna that plated Goldschmidt. Instead of two outs and runners on first and second with Max Scherzer on the mound, the Nats were down 1-0 with runners on second and third.

Play #2

The second play happened immediately after the first. This time, José Martínez was at the plate, now with runners at second and third. Here’s what happened, courtesy of the incomparable and incomparably friendly @cardinalsgifs.

It’s not that Cafecito crushed that pitch, though he did well enough considering this was against Scherzer. Where the damage happened was when Nats rookie shortstop Carter Kieboom took a bad route and then misplayed the groundball. It slipped through, resulting in two more runs. It pushed the lead to 3-0 before Mikolas had even taken the mound.

As you may be aware, Kieboom was out there because Trea Turner is on the IL. It’s hard to imagine Turner playing that groundball the same way. He almost certainly converts the out. Frankly, it’s a little surprising to see Kieboom- a top prospect considered at least adequate afield- playing it that way, too. Similarly, one of Robles’ calling cards is his speed and defense. He has the type of talent to make Gen X Redbird fans fantasize about Whiteyball. Under normal circumstances given the skill sets of all parties involved, neither of those plays should have happened... except they did. Everything goes as planned until it doesn’t. Suddenly, the Cardinals are up 3-0 and have tacked a bunch of extra pitches on to Scherzer’s arm.

Play #3

In spite of the first inning silliness, the Nats were within striking distance. Entering the sixth inning, the Cardinals were up 3-1. Yan Gomes led off the inning with a double off of Mikolas. The Lizard King rebounded to retire Kieboom and Wilmer Difo before facing pinch hitter Michael A. Taylor.

Taylor lofted a fly ball deep into the gap towards the Cardinals bullpen. Ozuna raced back to the fence. If this season has taught us anything, that situation alone feels perilous for Cardinal fans. Now is a good time to recall my article a few weeks back about the absurd number of fly balls that were going for homeruns against the Cardinals. Crazy ol’ Uncle Karma decided to pay Mikolas back a little bit:

If that fly ball lands two feet to the left of Ozuna, it’s a homerun and it ties up the game. Instead, poor Michael A. Taylor found the tiniest little phone booth-sized crevice where the outfield fence juts out enough that Ozuna could make the play. Hell, if Taylor eats an extra bowl of Wheaties when he’s 8 instead of that bowl of Lucky Charms, he has enough strength to leave the yard there. Yet, that’s not what happened.

If you’re keeping score at home, here’s how the Nats half of the formula looks:

Injury to key player + 2*(Rookie defensive misplay) + Bad HR/FB luck = 5-1 loss

instead of something more like a 3-2 victory. Now think back to the last three seasons. Imagine all of the DL/IL time lost for talents like Carlos Martínez or Alex Reyes. Think of the blasts headed for destiny over the fence, only to be plucked back for an out (usually by Lorenzo Cain). Remember the green play of youngsters like Aledmys Diaz, Randal Grichuk on the bases, and so many more. Or if you’d rather, think of the development of players like DeJong, Jordan Hicks, and Harrison Bader now compared to where they were in 2017 and 2018. Then pile on how close those Cardinal teams came to making the playoffs. Of course, more talent would have solved the equation but sometimes chaos just bites you.

Full disclosure- everything you’ve read so far was written before Thursday night’s game, which I attended. Sure enough, the same thing happened, but in the opposite direction. A mistake by a green shortstop, Yairo Muñoz, ultimately cost the Cardinals the game. Now, back to Wednesday night’s game...

The entire night was a perfectly representative snapshot of where things stand for both franchises early in the season. The Cardinals are making lots more contact than they have in recent years, even earlier this year, and the additional balls in play are creating opportunities. It puts pressure on the opposition to make more plays. They’re also looking for some positive regression on their HR/FB rate, which they received on the Taylor fly ball. More importantly, their lineup at full strength is a bit of a meat grinder that offers little respite even against someone with the quality of stuff of Max Scherzer.

The Nats, on the other hand, are talented but young, a fact that comes with occasional peril. They desperately need their injured stars (Turner and Anthony Rendon) to return, and they could probably use a little random luck. As it is, they’re so snake-bitten right now that they couldn’t win with Scherzer on the mound. Their 13 months have been so messy that pitching coach Derek Lilliquist was fired after last night’s game, and skipper Davey Martinez is surely feeling some pressure from above. It’s all a fascinating contrast between two franchises with a lot of similarities in results over the last decade, but a great deal of structural differences, particularly early this season.