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NLCS Game 4 of Cardinals and Nationals

Cardinals #46 Paul Goldschmidt strikes out in the first inning during Game 4 of the National League Championship Series in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

You knew it was ending when the defense started to fade.

A Cardinals team that committed to and followed through with a promise to restore the defensive fundamentals that had been lost during the team’s three-year absence from the postseason began to come apart at the seams.

They were down two games to none against the Nationals in the National League Championship Series, and there was no way they were going to be able to score enough runs to cover up their deficit along with a dissolving identity.

The Cardinals entered this pivotal season with as clear a plan as we’ve seen in years. They made good on many promises. The one flaw they never found an answer for nipped at their heels the whole way, tripping them in the end.

That feels like the best place to land when it comes to summarizing the 2019 Cardinals, a team that restructured the order of the National League Central, restored red October and spent 171 games fielding, running and pitching its way around an unreliable and often unappealing offense that too often overshadowed the team’s many strengths.

Was this season a success?

Yes.

President of baseball operations John Mozeliak said 2019 would matter. Winning the division mattered. Beating the Braves to reach the NLCS mattered.

Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said this team was built to win the division. Check. And if reclaiming the Central was not enough, the Cardinals’ historic four-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field played a large part in ejecting Joe Maddon, the manager who helped the North Siders gain the upper hand.

Manager Mike Shildt said two of his biggest points of emphasis were fixing a ragged defense and ending an era of boneheaded baserunning.

Shildt’s Cardinals became the first MLB team to commit the fewest errors one season after it committed the most. The Cardinals’ 95 defensive runs saved, as calculated by Fielding Bible, ranked third in the National League. Six positions — pitcher, first base, second base, shortstop, third base and center field — finished in the top three among NL counterparts.

On the base paths, the Cardinals’ 116 steals and 80% stolen-base percentage tied the Nationals for third and fifth-best among all MLB teams, respectively. FanGraphs’ base-running metrics scored the Cardinals at 14.4 runs above average, second-best in the game. For the first time since 2012, the Cardinals had four players with more than 10 steals.

This brings us to the pitching. The Cardinals lost some promising young arms to injury in Jordan Hicks, Alex Reyes and Austin Gomber. They lost some proven arms to injury and underperformance, names like Luke Gregerson, Brett Cecil and Chasen Shreve. Not once during the season did the front office add a pitcher from outside the organization who made a difference, even after declaring a desire to do so before baseball’s trade deadline.

And still the Cardinals produced baseball’s fifth-best starters’ ERA (3.78) and fifth-best bullpen ERA (3.82). The 106-win Dodgers, also ejected by the Nationals, were the only other NL team that pulled off both.

If you never saw the 2019 Cardinals, you would be wondering how this team didn’t win it all.

If you did, you probably wondered how it came within four wins of playing for it all.

Dragging down the Cardinals from the start was an offense that flashed at times but fizzled more times than not. It created tension, always. And it wreaked havoc when any of the team’s smooth-running cylinders misfired.

The Cardinals set new marks for the lowest League Championship Series average (.130), slugging percentage (.179) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.374).

It was the final, frustrating chapter of a familiar movie.

Coaches never found the magic button to press. Hitters never found the right gear for long.

The Cardinals finished in baseball’s bottom 10 in the following categories: .245 average (23rd), .415 slugging percentage (23rd), .737 on-base plus slugging percentage (21st), 480 extra-base hits (27th) and 210 home runs (24th).

Their .735 on-base plus slugging percentage with men on base ranked 27th.

Paul Goldschmidt led the Cardinals in hits (155), home runs (34) and RBIs (97). None of these team-leading totals cracked baseball’s top 25. Goldschmidt’s only appearance on that list is for strikeouts. His 166 ranked 11th. Seventy-two came with runners on base.

Of the 10 non-rookie Cardinals who totaled 300 plus at-bats, just two produced an on-base plus slugging percentage above their career averages: Marcell Ozuna (.800) and Kolten Wong (.784).

In a season that featured so many home runs it created a discussion about the integrity of the baseballs, the Cardinals’ ongoing struggle to do real damage at the plate was a long, slow leak.

Suppressing runs only helps if you score some. You can’t steal a base from the dugout. Even elite arms and gloves can flicker under the pressure of having to be perfect.

The 2019 Cardinals proved what great defense, baserunning and pitching can provide.

They will also always make us wonder how far they might have gone if runs weren’t so hard to find.

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