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The Last Game

Another October is here, and the Cardinals are still alive.

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

Here we are, friends, at the end of another baseball season. Another Cardinal baseball season, I should specify, which really should make all of us feel quite lucky, no matter how frustrating things might seem at any given point along the way. When you’re a Cardinal fan, it is rare to not watch baseball well into October, and late September games are virtually always meaningful. This is not the fate of most of the rest of baseball fans, who far more often find themselves simply playing out the string on a season, waiting for next year, sometimes forever.

Instead, we will get a game this afternoon at quarter past three, and then, regardless of what happens, there will be another game after that. The chances of more games beyond that one are not great; on the other hand, the chances of the Cardinals even reaching this point were so infinitesimal that a weighted coin flip feels like a crazy huge win. That there will be another game after today at all is testament to the success story of the 2021 Cardinals, the team that tried harder than any other Redbird club in recent memory to shoot themselves in the foot, only to be, as it turns out, just a little bit too good to sit out October entirely, even with self-inflicted wounds aplenty.

We will see Adam Wainwright take the mound at least one more time this year. For that, I am thankful. He will be back again in 2022, also, but this magic act has to end sometime, doesn’t it? I’m bracing myself for the day when it does, but 2021 Waino has one more start to make, and time can just stand over there in the corner and be quiet a little while longer while he makes it. Because 2021 Adam Wainwright does not care for time, and time has no power over him.

The Cardinals of 2021 have the most powerful trio of hitters in the middle of their lineup this franchise has had since the MV3 years. Paul Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill, and Nolan Arenado have all hit 30 or more homers this year, and if Nolan can have himself a good day against the Cubs this afternoon all three should end the season with at least 4.0 fWAR for the year. If you’re looking for a reason why this club might, just might, be dangerous once the postseason begins, that’s probably the best place to start.

The pitching was a disaster this year, right up until it wasn’t. Yes, the starting rotation is currently being held together by a trio of starters with an average age of just over 39 years old, but they don’t walk the park anymore, and when you have a defense like the Cards do this year, not walking hitters just might be enough.

Speaking of defense, the Cards’ unit of 2021 is the best in baseball, full stop, by the best measures we currently possess. The Cardinals lead all teams in Outs Above Average, with 52 on the year. The second place team is the Houston Astros, with 44 OAA. Third place is the Rangers with 30. The Cardinals have saved 41 runs on the season, nearly twice as many as the fifth-place Royals (21). It’s not just that the Cards’ defense was great this year; it basically lapped the field. When John Mozeliak took a step back from day to day operations work a couple years ago and talked about figuring out the best way to regain a competitive edge, most of the fans here in the remarkably dissatisfied Cardinals base scoffed. It would seem that defense is the edge they decided to pursue, and it would seem they have achieved their goal.

Things felt bad here around midseason; I was very vocal at the trade deadline, both in these electronic pages and in a few different radio spots, that I believed the Cardinals should have been sellers. That they missed a big opportunity in not moving relievers, not at least considering moving Jack Flaherty for something like the Scherzer/Turner deal from the Dodgers, not at the absolute very least pushing their chips toward the future, rather than pursuing what looked like an impossibly slim chance of making a splash this season. I still feel some days like I was right, if we’re trying to think long term. I am glad to have been proven too pessimistic.

This is the third year in a row the Cardinals will play in the postseason. They missed the playoffs three years in a row before that, but made the postseason for five years running before that. In the ten year period from 2011 to 2020, the Cardinals won a World Series, appeared in another, made it to the NLCS five times, and made the playoffs seven times. That is what it means to be a Cardinal fan, and why so many other fanbases find us absolutely excruciating.

In many ways, this was the most difficult season I can remember. It took a true miracle to get the Cards into this position. And yet, even with the injuries and the poor performances and all the other things that seemed to be limiting the club this year, they never fell apart so badly that the miracle came too late. Yes, seventeen wins in a row will cure a lot of ills. There are also multiple teams who could have won seventeen in a row down the stretch and still missed the postseason.

We have a game today. The last game. Except, of course, it is not the last game. The last game is almost never the last game when you are a Cardinal fan. We are only guaranteed one more, but one more is still one more. Still a chance to get it right.

It is October in St. Louis, and there is baseball to be played. For one more day, and then one more day. And then we will see.

Who could ask for anything better?