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National League Championship Series moves to Washington for Game 3 against the Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals players Harrison Bader, left, Dexter Fowler, Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright watch the ninth inning from dugout against the Washington Nationals during Game 3 of the National League Championship Series at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

WASHINGTON — In hindsight, it was fitting that the Nationals called upon professional boxing announcer Michael Buffer to perform his iconic, “Let’s get ready to rumble,” introduction before Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.

The Nationals came out lathered up, looking to land knockouts.

The Cardinals started throwing towels seconds in.

Leadoff man Dexter Fowler struck out on Stephen Strasburg’s third pitch of the game, and the Cardinals never got up Monday night.

Their 8-1 loss was the latest in a three-game beating that includes zero rounds won and hardly a glancing blow landed.

The Cardinals are overmatched, entirely exposed and one defeat away from elimination.

The 2019 Cardinals reclaimed the National League Central from the Cubs and Brewers. They snapped a three-year postseason absence. They beat a good Braves team in the National League Division Series. They reached baseball’s Final Four.

These are facts. Here’s another: There is a wall between the 2019 Cardinals and these Nationals, and it’s so high and so wide that it feels pointless to wonder if the Cardinals can become the National League’s version of the 2004 Red Sox, the only team in baseball history that overcame an 0-3 start in a best-of-seven postseason series.

The Cardinals have been outscored 13-2 while being out-hit 28-11. Their strikeout count is climbing by the game: six, 12, 16. Their batting line in this series now reads .121/.167/.143.

And that’s not even the worst of it.

Unless the Cardinals were going to win it all, they had to lose at some point. It’s the how that hurts. They’re not just losing games. They’re losing their identity.

“We haven't been able to play our brand of baseball in full,” manager Mike Shildt said Monday night. “We haven't been able to get in rhythm or sync.”

The Cardinals carried a bipolar offense this far because they did everything else well. They pitched their tails off. They ran the bases with a refreshing blend of precision and aggression. They committed the fewest errors of any team.

And in this must-win game, they melted.

They lost themselves in a stadium that pulsed with excitement during its NLCS debut. This crowd wants a World Series appearance so badly the desire crackles in the air. This crowd's team is deserving.

The Cardinals do not look worthy of the World Series. They don’t look worthy of winning one game against the Nationals. They don’t even look like the Cardinals.

Forget the dreadful offense against elite pitching for one moment.

A Marcell Ozuna base-running blunder snuffed the momentum of his second-inning double. The cleanup hitter froze between second and third as Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg grabbed a Jose Martinez come-backer and sprinted toward Ozuna, who was stuck. He didn’t force the pitcher to make a throw that could have sailed. He just stood there until he was tagged.

One mistake had turned into another.

The third-inning Anthony Rendon hit that was in Ozuna’s glove until it wasn’t was ruled a double, but Statcast said the ball had a 75-percent catch rate, and the eye test said the ball hit the sliding left fielder square in the web of his glove. The ball bounced out, and the non-play that would have ended the inning with the Nationals ahead by one run rolled on until they led 4-0.

But the most startling mistake? Easy. It was the one that jarred those who have spent years watching Cardinals cornerstone catcher Yadier Molina play his best baseball at the biggest moments. It was the third-inning wild pitch that looked like a passed ball.

Perhaps signals got crossed. Perhaps the earlier Rendon foul tip that caught Molina in the mask scrambled him. The moment was just so un-Molina-like. On a low Jack Flaherty pitch, Molina stabbed instead of blocked. He missed. Nationals moved from first and second, to second and third, which let both score when Howie Kendrick doubled for the — let me check the notes — thousandth time this series.

OK, now the offense. Mercy. This time there were no afternoon shadows to share the blame. Beneath the bright lights of Nationals Park, the latest disappointing performance from Jeff Albert’s hitters offered nothing more than a late whimper.

The Cardinals’ top three hitters combined to go nothing-for-12 with seven strikeouts. Pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter watched a called strike three right over the heart of the plate. Kolten Wong hit into the shift he used to exploit with a clutch bunt. Paul Goldschmidt traded his blue cap for a sombrero. Even for a lineup that is off, things were off.

The Nationals have been baseball’s best team since the 50-game mark. Dave Martinez’s rotation is a fire-breathing foursome determined to devour all challengers. But the Cardinals are going down so easy, it’s stunning.

Old man Kendrick, 36, is schooling them. Strasburg, who did not skip a beat after grabbing the baton of dominance from rotation mate Max Scherzer, responded to an unearned run in the seventh inning with back-to-back strikeouts, stranding two. Rendon’s stunning third-inning snag-and-throw of a Paul DeJong rocket was exactly the kind of hit-robbing play that slipped just beneath DeJong’s outstretched glove on the third-inning Victor Robles single that put the Nationals’ first run on base.

For what it's worth, Rendon could be a free agent after this season. And speaking of the future, the struggling Fowler and Carpenter have a combined four years and $70 million guaranteed left on their contracts, and that’s not including Carpenter’s vesting option for another $18.5 or the $2 million buyout if the Cardinals were to cut ties before 2021. Gulp.

Back to the present.

The Cardinals have one sleepless night to find the team that never stops fighting.

In Game 3, they looked ready to crumble.

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