Heading in to this series between the Cardinals and Cubs, I was optimistic because, due to pitching in the Wild Card game, Jake Arrieta would only be able to start once for Chicago. John Lackey and Jaime Garcia, both of whom pitched remarkably well this year, would be able to start three or four games for St. Louis, if necessary. The Cardinals’ offense showed flashes of serious run production throughout the season and the bullpen pitched very well all season despite repeated call-ups from Memphis, giving me hope that perhaps everything would click at once. Unfortunately, while the offense came alive for a few consecutive games (the instances in which they scored at least three runs in four successive games seem few and far between in 2015), the pitching staff, which, for four months, was approaching a record-setting ERA performance and still outdistanced the rest of the majors by the end of the regular season, basically fell apart.
That’s not to say that the hitters could have had better discipline at the plate than striking out fifteen times in the deciding game, but ultimately it felt like the pitchers and defense let the club down again and again. For one, the team allowed twenty runs in the three consecutive losses; there were only two stretches of identical length in which they surrendered more: September 6, 7, and 8 against the Pirates and Cubs, in which they allowed a combined 24 runs in three losses; and September 8, 9, and 10, over which span they went 1-2 against the Cubs and Reds. So it’s a little shocking, even with the wind blowing out at Wrigley, that the Cubs pounded the Cardinals in Games 2-4.
Game 1 was, of course, spectacular. Even with Trevor Rosenthal attempting to make the game a little interesting in the 9th, the Cubbies were unable to beat the combination of Lackey, Siegrist, and Rosenthal.
In Game 2, two critical throwing errors sank the Redbirds. Not to place all the blame on Kolten Wong or Jaime Garcia, but if they don’t make throwing errors in the 2nd inning, the Cubs almost certainly don’t score five runs–probably not even one–and the Cardinals are in better position to take a commanding 2-0 series lead.
Through two games, the pitching staff didn’t look awful. Granted, Garcia unraveled pretty quickly in that 2nd inning, and Lance Lynn gave up one run in his inning of emergency relief work, but while the combination of Carlos Villanueva, Seth Maness, Adam Wainwright, and Jonathan Broxton held Chicago in check for the remaining six innings, the Cardinals offense couldn’t scratch across a run after chasing starter Kyle Hendricks with two outs in the fifth.
And perhaps the ultimate difference. Heading in to the series, I remember hearing how, if the Cardinals could get to the Cubs starting pitching–easily the strength of their staff–they should have no trouble against the bullpen. That seemed to be true after the first game, in which they tagged Pedro Strop, on in relief of Jon Lester, for two to push their lead to four runs. But in Game 3, after chasing likely NL Cy Young-winner Arrieta in the 6th (his shortest outing since June 16) and plating four runs (also most recently accomplished on June 16), they managed nothing against Cubs relievers until the 9th, when they added two runs to their end of an 8-4 deficit.
Moreover, it constantly felt like the offense was chasing the pitching and defense the entire game. The Cubs led first, then were eventually up 5-2; the Cards knocked out Arrieta when they made it 5-4, but Wainwright’s first-pitch home run to Jorge Soler gave the momentum right back. Allowing a postseason-record six home runs will generally do that.
And, of course, there’s tonight. The Cardinals offense did precisely what it needed to do, with Stephen Piscotty staking the Redbirds to a 2-0 lead before Jason Hammel even recorded an out. But Lackey, starting on three days’ rest, had a rough 2nd inning, and the Cardinals didn’t get those runs back until the 6th. Naturally, the bullpen gave the runs right back with a pair of solo shots in successive innings, and the Cubs’ ‘pen–supposedly their one area of weakness–yet again shut St. Louis down.
So now we get to spend the next four months wondering what could have been had Wainwright, Holliday, Adams, and Molina, in particular, been healthy all season; if Kolten Wong would have successfully turned the double play (or at least not thrown the ball away) and Jaime Garcia would have made up his mind more quickly; if baseball had a rule that prevented the two best remaining teams from playing in the real first round of the playoffs; if Wrigley Field didn’t turn in to such a band box come October; if….
But that’s half the fun of baseball, right?