The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nationals didn’t just sweep the Cardinals. They also killed their identity.

Small, atypical mistakes added up for the Cardinals in the NLCS.
Small, atypical mistakes added up for the Cardinals in the NLCS. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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There was the catch that second baseman Kolten Wong couldn’t make as he kept one foot on the bag and extended for third baseman Tommy Edman’s throw. And there was the catch that three St. Louis Cardinals were in position to make but inexplicably didn’t, watching the ball drop in shallow right field because there was a miscommunication as to who should snag it.

This National League Championship Series started with the Cardinals tipping their caps to the dominant pitching of the Washington Nationals as they struggled to tally hits, much less runs. It ended after four games Tuesday night: Washington’s 7-4 win in Game 4 completed the sweep and fractured the Cardinals’ identity in the process.

These Cardinals won their division with a commitment to fundamental, clean baseball — pitching well and committing the fewest errors of any team — but as they struggled at the plate, stymied by the Nationals’ starting pitching, those frustrations eroded the aspects of their game that had been considered team strengths. As much as St. Louis regretted some of its own play, it was also left impressed by a Washington team that looks like a buzz saw as it heads to the World Series.

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“I feel like even that is not giving them enough credit,” Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said. “They’re a good team. Of course we could’ve played better, but we didn’t. They beat us. We had four games to try to win, and they played better than we did.”

The cracks started to show in the Cardinals’ 8-1 loss in Game 3 on Monday, but it was in Tuesday’s Game 4 when the wheels completely came off for the Cardinals and their brand — just 18 pitches into the game.

Trea Turner hit a leadoff single to right field on starter Dakota Hudson’s third pitch, and then Adam Eaton recorded a double on the next one. But two batters later, when the Nationals already had a 2-0 lead and after the Cardinals had intentionally walked Howie Kendrick to put runners at first and second base, the mistakes became egregious. Ryan Zimmerman’s line drive was quickly fielded by Edman, but Wong dropped his throw to second base. Kendrick was safe, and Washington had the bases loaded.

That’s when the Cardinals’ most demoralizing play of this series occurred. Victor Robles hit a flyball to shallow right with two St. Louis infielders dropping back to assist right fielder José Martínez. Martínez seemingly called for the catch, but Wong didn’t retreat. Both then watched as the ball hit the grass, an embarrassing blunder that let the Nationals bring home another run.

“It just dropped,” Martínez said.

Hudson didn’t make it through the inning and was charged with seven runs — three were unearned — on five hits. Washington had a 7-0 lead, and considering St. Louis managed just two runs through the first three games of the series, the game felt over.

The Cardinals didn’t go quietly — Yadier Molina homered in the fourth, they scored three runs in the fifth and rallied again in the eighth to give the Nationals a scare — but the early deficit proved too much to overcome.

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These Cardinals, known for upholding baseball’s old-school unwritten rules and tradition, have credited the Nationals’ pitching after every game in this series, and they looked especially lost at the plate in the first three. After they managed just one run Monday, Martínez said the difference between this matchup and St. Louis’s NL Division Series against Atlanta was Washington having “definitely better pitching than the Braves.”

“If you guys want to step into the box against one of those guys, you’re more than welcome,” Wong said.

As the Nationals spilled onto the field in glee after the final out, the one that formally put them in the World Series, the Cardinals stood by the railing of their dugout and watched fans erupt as red fireworks went off beyond the outfield. The team that won the NL Central still had plenty to be proud of this season, and in the midst of the disappointment over its end was admiration for its opponent.

“We’ve been battling all year, man,” Wong said. “Everybody was always counting us out, and we’ve been battling all year. I guess now the haters can agree with us that we weren’t the best team right now. Those guys did what they needed to do, and hats off to them.”

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