First-inning implosion epitomizes Cardinals' unceremonious playoff exit
WASHINGTON — Mike Shildt took the ball from Dakota Hudson and patted him on the back of the neck.
Hudson was out of the game after recording one out on 15 pitches against eight Washington Nationals batters, and the St. Louis Cardinals were on the receiving end of what they did to the Atlanta Braves in the last round. Tears welled up in the 25-year-old's eyes thinking back to that moment.
"He just was saying I had a good year and that I had an impact on the team getting here," an emotional Hudson said. "Just a little bit of nice words, I guess, to say as I was coming off."
The Nationals put up seven runs in the first inning to beat the Cardinals 7-4 in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series on Tuesday and sweep them out of the playoffs in unceremonious fashion. St. Louis was outscored 20-6 and never led at any point.
"We proved — and this doesn't require advanced sabermetrics — you have to get a lead to win a game," Shildt said. "We weren't able to do that."
Hours after the manager said his team "has always believed in itself" and will continue to do that, it was like the Cardinals forgot how to play baseball. Hudson didn't have his best stuff but was done in by a succession of baffling errors and defensive blunders from the Cardinals — the majors' best fielding team during the regular season.
"Baseball, man," second baseman Kolten Wong said. "When this team is rolling like they're doing, you're trying to stop the damage, keep it close, and things like that happen."
The usually dependable Wong dropped a routine throw from third baseman Tommy Edman. Then, Wong, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and right fielder José Martínez converged before watching an easy flyball fall between them.
"It just dropped," Martínez said. And it hurt.
"Both were big plays because it allowed the inning to continue and allowed that crooked number to grow," Shildt said.
All of those plays happened in the first inning. Given their offensive ineptitude, the Cardinals were down and out less than 20 minutes after the first pitch of the night.
Of course, that continued, too. Washington starter Patrick Corbin became the first pitcher to strike out 10 in the first four innings of a playoff game. The Cardinals pushed across three runs on two hits in the fifth and threatened in the eighth with the bases loaded but couldn't come all the way back.
Adam Wainwright, who relieved Hudson, felt like this would be a repeat of Game 5 of the NL Division Series in 2012, when the Cardinals erased an early 6-0 deficit, then rallied in the ninth at Washington to win and move on. That didn't materialize.
"I would've been really disappointed had we lost that game 7-0," Wainwright said. "We fought back in and had a chance to win the game."
The Cardinals struck out 14 times, all swinging, totaling 48 for the series.
For the fourth consecutive time out, the Cardinals looked nothing like the team that put up 10 runs in the first inning of Game 5 of the NLDS at Atlanta to advance to face Washington. Leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler went 0 for 11 with six strikeouts before being benched, and Nos. 3 and 4 hitters Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna at one point combined to strike out in 10 consecutive at-bats.
"There's not one thing you can point to," Goldschmidt said. "I didn't play well enough to help us win. One hit in four games, that's not going to cut it when you're hitting third. It just came back to bite us."
When the losses piled up, the explanation kept changing.
After crediting Nationals starters for their wizardry through the first two games, the Cardinals lamented not having a lead after they went down quietly in Game 3. St. Louis didn't hold a lead for a single pitch of the NLCS and was swept in the postseason for just the third time in franchise history.
"We just give our best out there," Martínez said, "and we couldn't do it."