Asked whether the Cardinals have more to give as a team, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt was blunt: “We have to, otherwise the season is going to be over. It is what it is.”
The Cardinals couldn’t be eliminated from the postseason Monday night, but with their ace on the mound and a 2-0 National League Championship Series deficit, this Game 3 was a must-win in every other sense. St. Louis lost to the Nationals, 8-1, putting the Cardinals on the brink of their season ending as soon as Tuesday night, with the next two games of the series to be held in Washington, if a Game 5 is even necessary.
Jack Flaherty, the NL’s best pitcher in the second half of the regular season with a 0.91 ERA, lasted just four innings after allowing four runs in the third. St. Louis’s offense remains dormant — the Cardinals have two runs through three games — offering little hope that will change with Patrick Corbin tabbed as the Nationals’ starter for Tuesday’s Game 4. Washington didn’t turn to either of its top relievers, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, meaning they’ll both be available as well.
“I can tell you this, and it’s appropriate for the area we’re at: There is no concession speech being written,” St. Louis Manager Mike Shildt said. “This is a team that can absolutely win four games in a row, and clearly we have to start. . . . This group will bite, scratch and claw. We’re going to figure out a way to win tomorrow.”
Before Monday’s game, Shildt acknowledged that the Cardinals hadn’t given themselves many offensive opportunities — they tallied just four hits in the first two games combined — but “we’ve pretty much done as much as we can with what we’ve had.” That changed in Game 3. Marcell Ozuna led off the second inning with a double, a nice change of pace for St. Louis after it was hitless through six innings in each of the first two games.
José Martínez, inserted into the lineup to boost a woeful offense, was at the plate next, and he grounded a ball back to Washington starter Stephen Strasburg, who turned and spied Ozuna too far off second base. The pitcher made the fundamental play taught by Little League coaches and jogged directly at the runner, forcing him to pick a base. Ozuna never did. He stood, rooted to the spot, as Strasburg tagged him out — a costly mistake for a team desperate for base runners. The Cardinals have earned just three walks off Nationals starters for the series, and they didn’t work Strasburg for a single one Monday.
“It’s not like they’re throwing it right down the middle. They’re making quality pitches,” Goldschmidt said. “They’re throwing strikes and then they’re getting us to chase.
“They’ve done a good job. We’ve got to do a better job if we’re going to win.”
As frustrating as more offensive ineptitude was for St. Louis, it was the defensive blunders that stung most for a team whose strength is stingy, fundamental play. The Cardinals, who had contained Washington’s offense to five runs through the first two games, then spotted the Nationals four in the third inning alone Monday — and every run came with two outs. The most damaging of those was Anthony Rendon’s flyball to left that scored Adam Eaton; Ozuna slid to catch it and even briefly had the ball in his glove before it popped out. It was scored as a double rather than an error, and it gave Washington a 2-0 lead that felt insurmountable considering St. Louis had managed just one run for the series to that point.
“It’s not an easy play any time you have to leave your feet and go a distance and slide,” Shildt said. “It’s a play that he’s clearly capable of making, but it’s not a play you absolutely expect somebody to make.
“There’s a lot of other plays in the game that were a factor that I can’t single that out as being the fulcrum that led to the rest of the game.”
Flaherty then walked Juan Soto, and a wild pitch to start Howie Kendrick’s at-bat advanced Soto and Rendon to second and third. Kendrick’s line-drive double to right scored both, making the Cardinals’ climb to get back in the game that much steeper. It’s now even more so for the series. The 2004 Boston Red Sox are the only team to recover from a 3-0 hole.
“We know how good we are; we know how good they are,” second baseman Kolten Wong said. “To come into this situation and be where we’re at, we expected better.”