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Poof! Cardinals’ ‘magic’ season vanishes in sweep. Their next trick is up to new core

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In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman discusses the role of baseball in our lives. Plus, a happy birthday shoutout to Bradley Whitford! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

As he walked to the plate with a chance to push the game one hit deeper into the night, the season one game further into the weekend, and his career one day longer into October, Yadier Molina paused and whispered a prayer.

He refused to be the last out of his last game.

“I was concentrating to not be,” he said.

A 19-year career spent entirely with one organization and annually chasing one trophy, Molina stepped into the batter’s box with two outs in the ninth inning Saturday night at Busch Stadium. He did then what he had done more than any player in National League history — delivered a base hit in the playoffs, for the 102nd time.

With the final swings of their major-league careers, Molina and Albert Pujols delivered singles and then yielded first base to a pinch-runner. They were in the dugout when the Cardinals’ season unceremoniously ended in the glove of a former teammate, the Phillies’ Edmundo Sosa, securing a 2-0 victory Saturday and a sweep in the wild-card series at Busch Stadium.

At 10:54 p.m. St. Louis time, it was sundown on a Cardinals era.

Careers that spanned a combined 41 seasons, 20 All-Star appearances, 12 Gold Glove awards and 5,498 games — including 194 in the postseason — ended in the blink of 18 innings.

The long goodbye had the shortest ending.

“It’s the end of the Pujols-Molina era,” Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said, walking into the clubhouse after the loss. “It’s been a nice winning era, that’s for sure.”

“You’re just expecting the story to continue, to be what it’s always been,” manager Oliver Marmol said.

“It wasn’t meant to be for us this year,” Pujols said.

Emotional scene

In the clubhouse after the loss, players exchanged hugs. Some packed their gear. Several players, such as Nolan Arenado, were on the verge of tears or coming back from taking the plunge.

Molina’s voice snagged when describing the ovation he received from fans as he left the field for the final time. He shared a moment with backup catcher Andrew Knizner, just as rookie Juan Yepez walked with Pujols as he left the clubhouse as a player for the final time. The transition from one generation — one with two championships, Molina’s four pennants, and 15 consecutive winning seasons — to the next, newer Cardinals core was underway.

Two immediate questions will start to shape it.

A potential face of the franchise for this next era of Cardinals, Arenado enjoyed his first division title in his second year in St. Louis. He has an opt-out clause in his contract and can become a free agent in four weeks. Or, he can remain a Cardinal through at least 2026. His choice. There is the possibility of negotiating a deal that at least guarantees the club option for 2027. Arenado, 31, repeatedly has said he intends to remain with the Cardinals, that he relishes the atmosphere at the ballpark, and he affirmed that again Saturday.

“I love it here. I love the guys. I feel like I fit well with this organization,” Arenado said, pausing at times before tearing up. “I just feel like I fit well here. I think the city appreciates me. Probably not after tonight. I really loved it here. Hopefully we can figure it out.”

Adam Wainwright, a 17-year veteran and third member of the advertised “last run,” has yet to announce whether he will return for 2023 or retire. The Cardinals are open to another one-year deal with the right-hander. But his view of Molina’s base hit will play into the decision.

Wainwright, 41, watched from the bullpen and saw a gap opening in right-center, nudging a longtime colleague that Molina was about to land a single right there. He’d seen him do it so often —just usually from the dugout. On the roster but not part of the rotation because of his difficulties in September, Wainwright said the vantage point of the bullpen is one “I don’t like as much.” It will be part of the conversation he has with family about one more year.

“We should know pretty soon if something happens,” Wainwright said. “If not, then it’s been a good run. Thanks, St. Louis. I don’t like not pitching in a playoff series. So, you can take that one of two ways. You could take that as it’s been a good run. Or, you could take that as a motivation to never let that happen again.”

He said later he has his answer.

He did not divulge it, not yet.

The Cardinals went through the two games against Philadelphia without their last two pitchers to receive Cy Young Award votes throwing a single pitch. Jack Flaherty warmed up. Wainwright said he was ready to close, when needed. The Cardinals engaged the bullpen quickly Saturday, calling on lefty Jordan Montgomery to replace Miles Mikolas with two on in the fifth. Mikolas conceded the matchup of left-handed batters was better at that point for Montgomery and felt as he left the mound, “alright, here we got — punchout, pop out.”

Montgomery allowed a sacrifice fly that doubled the Phillies’ lead initially provided by Bryce Harper’s solo homer of Mikolas. The scoreboard said the Cardinals trailed by two runs.

The gap did not feel that close.

It felt cavernous.

”We didn’t hit”

“We didn’t hit the ball,” Molina said bluntly.

“It got cold at the wrong time,” Marmol said.

That has become the Cardinals’ yearly forecast for October — a chill shivering through the lineup. The Cardinals are 1-9 in their last 10 playoff games, and they’ve been held to a run or less in six of those nine losses. Since the start of the 2019 National League Championship Series, the Cardinals have hit 33 for 220 (.150) in their past seven postseason games outside of 2020’s bubble.

The Cardinals had one extra-base hit in Philly’s two-day visit. The only runs the Cardinals’ scored were provided on pinch-hits by rookies, Yepez and Nolan Gorman. The starters in the lineup combined to go 10 for 62 (.161). The Phillies’ two starters, Zack Wheeler (Game 1) and Aaron Nola (Game 2), threw 13 scoreless innings. Nola did so by short-circuiting the middle of the Cardinals’ order at the two MVP candidates who reside there, Paul Goldschmidt and Arenado.

In the sixth inning Saturday, Pujols lashed a one-out single to get the tying run to the plate.

Nola struck out Goldschmidt on six pitches.

He struck out Arenado on five pitches.

Goldschmidt and Arenado had six at-bats combined with a runner on base Saturday and went 0 for six with five strikeouts.

”I didn’t do my job”

“The results speak for themselves,” Goldschmidt said. “I’ve played all September, now October, so it really stinks you know. And it’s 100% on me. I didn’t do my job and it stinks. I can’t change it. I hate that. I think we’re going to need some time to heal from this.”

“I think we didn’t come through,” Arenado said. “I had opportunities to do it, and I didn’t. I wouldn’t have it any other way, right? I would rather be here talking to you guys than at home watching on the TV. It’s unfortunate to lose the way we did.”

In the eighth Saturday, there was one more chance for Arenado and Goldschmidt to turn over a new autumn leaf, to provide in the season’s final month what they did so often in the first six. It began with Pujols. The three-time MVP — in what would be his final major-league at-bat — greeted reliever Seranthony Dominguez with a single down the third-base line to get the tying run on base. Pujols was lifted for a pinch-runner, leaving the Busch Stadium field for the last time. Dominguez then struck out Goldschmidt and Arenado to end the inning.

In the ninth, Phillies closer Zach Elfin retired the first two batters he faced before Corey Dickerson’s single gave Molina that last chance for his first hit of the series.

He flipped a single to right, right in the direction of Wainwright.

A pinch-runner trotted out and Molina walked off, lowering his head as an ovation escorted him to the dugout. He stood not too far from Pujols for the final moments of their career. The end came one batter later when Tommy Edman popped up.

Molina was asked in the clubhouse how he felt about a final day as Pujols’ teammate.

“Albert?” Molina said. “I’m going to be his brother forever. Can’t ask for more.”

“We’re so blessed,” Pujols said. “We had unbelievable careers. I think we left a mark in every place.”

There are two that hung above both of them as they spoke — the banners in the Cardinals’ clubhouse for the 2006 and 2011 World Series championships. In the coming years there will be two more. Molina’s No. 4 and Pujols’ No. 5 will be retired by the team and hung alongside No. 6, No. 1, No. 2, Nos.17, 10, 6, 14, 24, 42, 20, and 45. Pujols motioned around that clubhouse late Saturday and noted the young talent that will continue to “make this team a contender.”

The next chapter

His season, often described as “magic” or “storybook,” came to its conclusion, but as that chapter ends, the next for the Cardinals already has begun. The team traded for Goldschmidt and Arenado to be the next core, the one that carried the team for so much of this season and is expected to carry it into the next several and, by shaking their postseason blahs, reverse the trend of Cardinals’ sudden exits.

Perhaps even be driven by them.

“That’s exciting — you have two guys who are absolute pros, who invest in the younger group just like the guys before them did, and who find value in that,” Marmol said, sitting in his office between visits from players for hugs. “They’re not selfish. They understand that setting the culture is important, being held accountable is important, and holding others accountable is important. It’s in good hands.”

Producing in October is also important.

Molina and Pujols did until the very end.

That too is expected of Cardinals in any era, a reporter mentioned to the manager.

“That’s why I used the word ‘accountable,’” he said. “Those are still the guys I want up in the tough situations. I will count on them every time. The game (stinks). It punches you in the gut often but the moments that don’t (stink) are really darn cool, and those keep you coming back.”

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