Looking to become Major League Baseball’s champions for the second time in five seasons, the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals logged MLB’s best record behind the game’s best pitching. They clinched the Central Division following Game 159 of the regular season, winning a total of 100 and losing 62, gaining home field advantage until the World Series.
In the LDS, the Cardinals faced a very familiar foe, the Chicago Cubs, third-place finisher in the Central Division and holder of the third-best regular-season record in the game. In the one-game Wild Card match, Chicago dispatched the club with the division’s and MLB’s second-best mark in the regular season in the Pittsburgh Pirates. Despite being rivals since 1892, the two clubs had never met in the post-season until now.
The Cards held an 11-8 edge over the Cubs in the regular season, but that did not matter. After Chicago nullified the home field advantage in a split of the first two contests at Busch Stadium, the Cubs took the next two at Wrigley Field to take the series, three games to one.
The Cardinals fell short of their fifth consecutive Championship Series appearance, bowing out of the post-season the earliest since the 2010 club sat out of October play entirely. The Cubs lost their mojo in the Championship Series, where they were swept by the Eastern Division champion New York Mets.
In the traditional 2-2-1 format for the best-of-five Division Series. Busch Stadium was the site of the opening two tilts between St. Louis and Chicago.
The Cardinals went with an atypical roster of 14 position players and just 11 pitchers in the series. Though they had spent most of the season in Memphis, infielder Greg Garcia and left-hander Tyler Lyons made the squad. The bullpen included recovering Adam Wainwright plus trade deadline acquisition Jonathan Broxton.
Among the excluded were three players who had been with St. Louis all season - infielder Pete Kozma, outfielder Peter Bourjos and left-handed reliever Randy Choate. Other veterans left off the roster were first baseman Matt Adams and relievers Matt Belisle and Steve Cishek.
Catcher Yadier Molina was on the roster despite having suffered a torn thumb ligament in late September. Other active players appearing to be less than 100 percent were outfielders Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk and Jon Jay, all activated off the disabled list in September.
The opening starters were former teammates with the Boston Red Sox, who had helped to defeat St. Louis in the 2013 World Series. Now, John Lackey pitched for the Cardinals and Jon Lester took the ball for the visitors from Chicago.
Lackey, the Cardinals most consistent starter during the regular season, did not disappoint. The 36-year-old right-hander held the Cubs hitless through the first five innings and finished with 7 1/3 scoreless innings. Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal secured the final five outs in the three-hitter, a 4–0 win.
Matt Holliday’s RBI single scored Stephen Piscotty in the first to give the Cardinals a 1-0 lead they carried into the eighth. With Lester still in the game, the Cardinals scored again on a Tommy Pham home run. Matt Carpenter drew a walk that chased Lester before Piscotty’s two-run blast against reliever Pedro Strop created the final cushion for St. Louis.
Game 2 starter Jaime Garcia had been one of the team’s best pitchers since coming off the disabled list in late May. However, battling the flu, the left-hander did not inform manager Mike Matheny of his illness until one hour before first pitch.
Carpenter’s solo home run in the bottom of the first gave St. Louis a very short-lived lead.
After getting through the first unscathed, Garcia fell apart in the second inning, allowing five unearned runs, with his own throwing error playing a crucial role. Still, Chicago’s first three scores came on balls that did not leave the infield until Jorge Soler’s two-run home run put the final dagger into Garcia’s outing.
Expected to be the Game 4 starter, Lance Lynn was called upon to pitch the third inning and yielded the Clubs’ final tally.
The Cardinals inched closer with solo home runs from Kolten Wong and Randal Grichuk in the fifth against Chicago starter Kyle Hendricks. However, the Cubs bullpen held the Cards to two hits over the final 4 2/3 innings to protect the 6-3 score.
St. Louis’ final four relievers performed even better, as Carlos Villanueva, Seth Maness, Adam Wainwright and Jonathan Broxton combined for six innings of one-hit shutout ball, but the damage was done and the offense never threatened again.
For the game, the Cardinals hitters collectively managed just six hits, took no walks and struck out 11 times.
The Cubs hammered the Cardinals with six home runs on route to an 8-6 Game 3 win and a two-games-to-one series lead. Chicago set an MLB record for the most homers in any post-season game as each of their first six batters went deep.
Chicago struck first on a very loud home run by Kyle Schwarber off Michael Wacha in the home second. St. Louis took a 2-1 lead ever so briefly in the top of the fourth on a Jhonny Peralta double and a Pham RBI ground ball out before Starlin Castro’s solo shot in the bottom of the frame re-tied the game.
Jason Heyward gave Cardinals fans hope with a two-run homer of his own against Cubs ace Jake Arrieta in the sixth that pulled St. Louis to within 5-4. That hope was quickly dashed in the bottom of the inning when Wainwright served up another two-run home run, this one to Jorge Soler.
Dexter Fowler made it six long balls for Chicago with a solo blast against Broxton in the eighth.
Piscotty’s two-run homer in the ninth brought St. Louis back to within two runs, but that is where the game ended. The Cardinals hitters continued their strikeout ways, with 13 Ks, including nine by the winning pitcher Arrieta. Wacha absorbed the loss.
Rather than start Lynn, who had a good season, but struggled in September, Matheny gave the ball to Game 1 starter Lackey on short rest. It did not work.
The Cards got off on the right foot offensively, with a two-run home run by Piscotty in the top of the first.
The lead lasted only until the second, when Lackey made several mistakes that hurt him. Starting pitcher Jason Hammel’s RBI single gave Chicago its first run, with Javier Baez’ three-run shot the most serious blow. Lackey exited the game following the third inning.
Once again, the Cardinals could not hold their ground. Rizzo’s second homer in two days off Siegrist gave the Cubs their final lead. With Siegrist still pitching in the seventh, Schwarber launched yet another long ball to end the scoring.
The anxious Cardinals hitters continued the strikeout fest with 15 whiffs against eight different Cubs pitchers. Trevor Cahill, who took a blown save in the sixth, ended up the winner with Siegrist taking the loss.
It was the first time in Cubs history that the club clinched a post-season series at home.
Piscotty and Heyward were the only two Cardinals who batted above .250. In an unusual result, Piscotty had eight strikeouts and six hits in 16 at-bats, including three home runs and six RBI. His line was .375/.444/1.000/1.444. Heyward lacked Piscotty’s punch with a home run and two RBI, but still had a strong line of .357/.436/.643/1.080.
Pitching in relief, Wainwright allowed just one run and struck out six in 5 1/3 innings, though he also allowed an inherited runner to score at a key point in Game 3.
In fact, Chicago scored against eight of the 10 Cardinals hurlers to appear in the series (Lyons did not pitch). Unscathed were Trevor Rosenthal, though he played with fire by allowing five baserunners in just two innings, and former Cub Carlos Villanueva, who issued a lone walk in two scoreless frames.
Pitching in crucial spots, Siegrist’s three runs allowed in three innings were especially painful. In his defense, his 81 appearances during the regular season were the most by any pitcher in the National League.
Wacha’s four runs yielded in 4 1/3 frames dug the Cardinals a big Game 3 hole, but Jaime Garcia’s five unearned runs in Game 2 changed the series momentum.
Four of the eight regular position players batted .143 or less – Jhonny Peralta, Kolten Wong, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina. The four struck out at a combined rate of 38.1 percent.
Is it a wonder that the Cardinals lost?
What went wrong?
St. Louis’ vaunted pitching failed them, as they surrendered leads in each of the final three losses. 14 of Chicago’s 30 hits over the four games went for extra bases, including a whopping 10 home runs. That was just one short of the MLB LDS record for homers, including all five-game series.
Though the Cardinals offense kept themselves close with eight long balls of their own, there wasn’t enough else to go with it. Their aggregate batting line was just .211/.255/.429/.684. The Cardinals struck out a whopping 48 times against just seven walks in the four games.
Many, myself included, believe the Cardinals used so many bullets to ensure they won the division and avoided the Wild Card game and were so weakened by injuries that they did not have enough left in October.
Between high usage players who faltered late such as Wong, Peralta and Siegrist and injured players not at 100 percent, such as Molina, who had surgery after the series, the banged up Cardinals were simply not good enough to beat the inspired Cubs.
Heading into the off-season, the team’s biggest free agent is clearly right fielder Jason Heyward. Others include infielder Mark Reynolds, starter John Lackey and relievers Carlos Villanueva, Matt Belisle and Randy Choate.
The Cardinals should make Heyward and Lackey qualifying one-year offers, which would guarantee the club early 2016 draft picks if they sign with another club. The Cards are expected to make a strong offer for Heyward, but demand will be high. Lackey could seek a multi-year deal elsewhere.
Of the other four, my guess is that Villanueva might have the best chance of returning. Reynolds may be squeezed out by others with Choate almost certainly gone.
Arbitration-eligible players include catcher Tony Cruz, first baseman Matt Adams, outfielders Peter Bourjos and Brandon Moss and pitchers Trevor Rosenthal, Seth Maness and Steve Cishek. Bourjos and Cishek are the most likely to not be back next season with Cruz a possibility.
Two Cardinals pitchers have team options in Jaime Garcia and Jonathan Broxton. The former will likely be back and the latter will not.
Less-experienced Cardinals positioned to compete for expanded roles next season include Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, Greg Garcia, Marco Gonzales, Tim Cooney and Sam Tuivailala, with other prospects on the more distant horizon.
Prominent Cardinals with various injuries currently at different stages of recovery may hold a key to 2016. Adams and Matt Holliday (quads), Jon Jay (wrist), Randal Grichuk (elbow), Yadier Molina (finger), Carlos Martinez (shoulder) and Jordan Walden (biceps) all missed important time in 2015 but would make a difference if at full strength next season.
With returning starters at every position, the team’s most immediate depth needs include a reserve middle infielder, better hitting reserve catcher, a left-handed reliever and right-handed bullpen depth, all of which may all be on GM John Mozeliak’s shopping list.
Chasing a top-tier starting pitcher may also not be out of the question nor would be the acquisition of a more dependable power bat at first base. The latter could be more likely if Heyward opts to play elsewhere in 2016, as that is the team’s pivotal decision this off-season.
Related commentary at The Cardinal Nation blog
Link to master article with all 2015 award winners and team recaps for the entire series, covering every level of the Cardinals system.
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