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Cardinals on the brink of elimination from the National League Championship Series in Washington

Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong moves out of the way of right fielder Jose Martinez, and neither manages to catch a short fly ball by Washington's Victor Robles in the Nationals' seven-run first inning Tuesday. The outburst held up as Washington won 7-4 and swept the Cardinals in four games to win the National League pennant. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

It wasn’t Cardinals manager Mike Shildt’s Not-Safe-For-Work speech after the Cardinals won the NLDS that inspired the Nationals to dismantle the Redbirds in their National League Championship Series sweep.

It wasn’t the lack of at-bats for (insert the name of your favorite bench player here).

It wasn’t umpire Bill Miller’s big strike zone, Busch Stadium’s afternoon shadows or Mike Maddux’s pregame golf.

No, the reasons the Nationals rolled over the Cardinals are far less controversial and much more clear.

Before we review the season as a whole, and before we turn the page to 2020, let's revisit the four biggest reasons the Cardinals were so quickly dismissed in their first NLCS appearance since 2014.

1. Cards' hitters overmatched

Of all the statistics available to show the depths to which the Cardinals’ offense sank in this series, perhaps this is the one that best tells the tale. The Cardinals averaged .130 with a .195 on-base percentage and a .179 slugging percentage in the NLCS. That adds up to a .374 on-base plus slugging percentage. That .374 OPS is the lowest ever produced by any team in an ALCS or NLCS. Not since the 1982 Braves (.399) has a League Championship Series team produced an OPS below .400, and the Cardinals and the Braves are the only two that ever have. The Cardinals also set unfortunate League Championship Series records for lowest plate appearances per strikeout (2.77) and lowest percent of pitches put into play (13.6 percent). And one more thing.

For all of the well-deserved praise of the Nationals’ starters, don’t forget that Cardinals hitters had three hits, one walk and eight strikeouts in 9.1 innings pitched by Nationals relievers. Against the Nationals bullpen, the Cardinals averaged .097.

2. Steady defense skipped a beat

After becoming the first MLB team to go from committing the most errors in baseball one season, to the fewest errors in baseball the following season, the Cardinals could not say they were thrilled with their defense in the NLCS. They were assigned just one error in the series, officially. That came when Kolten Wong dropped a throw from Tommy Edman that would have become a spectacular out on a hard-hit Ryan Zimmerman rocket with one out in the first inning of Game 4. Wong’s drop would have been the second out of the inning. There was no chance to turn two.

But if it had become an out, then the inning would have ended when Victor Robles hit a bases-loaded fly ball to shallow right field. Except that didn’t turn into an out either. That ball dropped between right fielder Jose Martinez, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Wong. Another run scored, making it 3-0 Nationals with still just one out and the bases loaded. Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson should have been out of the inning. Instead he was about to be chased from the inning that did not end until Adam Wainwright was on the mound, and the Nationals were ahead 7-0 and well on their way to the World Series.

And that was just Game 4.

In the Cardinals’ 8-1 loss in Game 3, the Nationals grabbed the game with a four-run third inning that featured two costly plays not made. Cardinals left fielder Marcell Ozuna dropped a ball that hit him in the webbing of his glove during a sliding two-out catch attempt of an Anthony Rendon fly ball. Had he made the grab, the Cardinals would have entered the fourth inning down just 1-0. A run scored on the play, and more would come.

Howie Kendrick’s two-out double plated the inning’s other two runs, but those runs moved into scoring position when Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina was unable to block a wild pitch from starter Jack Flaherty. It could have easily been ruled a passed ball.

Two big innings in the Cardinals’ final two losses could have been cut short by the Cardinals playing their traditionally strong defense.

3. Cards were always playing catch-up

The Cardinals didn’t just fail to lead once in the NLCS. They never grabbed a tie that was not the zero-zero one that began each game. That meant some of their best relievers never got a chance to do their job — hold a lead. Carlos Martinez pitched 1/3 of an inning in the series, no save situation to be found. Tyler Webb and John Brebbia made just two appearances each. Daniel Ponce de Leon, who had not pitched since Sept. 24, faced more Braves (nine) than the following relied-upon relievers: Brebbia (eight), Webb (six), Genesis Cabrera (two) and Martinez (two).

4. Nationals had more surprise heroes

Based on offense, Cardinals corner outfielder Jose Martinez, who hit his way off the bench once again in the NLCS, could have had a case for series MVP. Seriously. He went five-for-10 with two doubles and three RBIs. Instead, the award went to Nationals second baseman Howie Kendrick, the No. 5 hitter who went five-for-15 with four doubles and four RBIs. Kendrick is a 36-year-old utility man who had one All-Star season, back in 2011. He didn’t even break camp with the Nationals, due to a hamstring strain, and no one seemed all that concerned about it at the time. After coming up big against the Dodgers in the National League Division Series, Kendrick slugged .600 against the Cards. And unlike Jose Martinez, this unlikely hero had some help.

Catcher Yan Gomes, who splits duties with Kurt Suzuki, had a game-winning RBI in the series. So did outfielder Michael A. Taylor, who was only playing because Victor Robles had a bad hamstring. Then Robles came back for Game 3, and went three-for-eight with a home run the rest of the series.

Teams that go far in the postseason find unlikely heroes along the way. The Nationals found them. The Cardinals had just one.

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