NLCS sweep puts damper on Cardinals’ 92-win season

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St. Louis Cardinals’ Yadier Molina reacts after being hit by a pitch during the eighth inning of Game 4 of the baseball National League Championship Series against the Washington Nationals Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

From one corner of a sullen clubhouse came the glass half full view of the St. Louis Cardinals’ season.

“People did not think we were going to be here,” veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright said. “I think if you had asked Cardinals (fans) in spring training if we got to the NLCS, would they be happy? Most of them would probably say yes.”

On the opposite wall several locker stalls away came a harsher review.

“Everybody always counted us out,” second baseman Kolten Wong said. “I guess now the haters, they can agree with us that we weren’t the best team right now.”

They’re both right. The Cardinals exceeded preseason expectations and came from 5½ games back in June to win the NL Central and advance to the NL Championship Series. But 48 strikeouts and six runs in a four-game sweep at the hands of the World Series-bound Washington Nationals put a damper on a season of growth in St. Louis that players believe will set the foundation for more winning to come.

“Proud of this group,” said Yadier Molina, the veteran catcher and clubhouse leader. “We got a good group of guys that care about winning. Obviously we didn’t play good, we didn’t hit the ball, but that’s a part of baseball. We’ve got to learn from this and move on.”

As Wong said, it’s a tough ending, but the Cardinals will get over it. And the 29-year-old was plenty bullish on his team’s progress.

“I can’t tell you how much I love every single guy in this clubhouse,” Wong said. “Even though we were getting counted out nonstop, it made us become closer, made us become more brothers.”

The positives bridging 2019 into 2020 are evident. St. Louis found an ace in 23-year-old Jack Flaherty and a strong No. 2 starter in 25-year-old Dakota Hudson. The core group of hitters who went cold against Washington is still largely in its prime.

After his first full season as manager, Mike Shildt cultivated strong relationships with his young players and is optimistic.

“This is a complete team that just got through performing and competing,” Shildt said. “But experience is a good teacher. You always look to grow from it. We will.”

Hours after an easy fly ball dropped between him Wong and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt during a disastrous first inning in Game 4, right fielder José Martínez was already thinking ahead to how the lessons will help.

“Now we have the idea how to win,” Martínez said. “It was a fun year. Hopefully everything stays the same here.”

Left fielder Marcell Ozuna is a free agent and didn’t end on a great note: 3 for 16 with eight strikeouts in the NLCS after 29 home runs and 89 RBIs during the season. But the biggest question facing St. Louis is the future of Wainwright, who’s 38 and weighing a return for a 15th major league season.

“I hadn’t even thought about,” Wainwright said. “We’ll talk about it over the next couple of weeks.”

If Wainwright, who went 14-10 with a 4.19 ERA this season, talks to his teammates about it, there won’t be much of a debate. Goldschmidt said Wainwright proved he can still pitch, and 2020 would allow the righty to further mentor the younger arms.

“I really want to play one more year with that guy, so hopefully he comes back,” Molina said.

St. Louis clawing back to make things interesting in Game 4 was evidence for some of the fight this team showed all season — and should take into next year.

“It’s a special team that is down and could easily have packed it in,” Shildt said. “A lot of positives took place, but not enough of them.”

The mixed emotions could follow the Cardinals into the winter and to Jupiter, Florida, when they report to spring training in February. That’s their next opportunity to show that going 92-70 and winning a NLDS in 2019 was actually a positive.

“We battled through a lot of stuff this year,” Wainwright said. “Our ultimate goal was to win the World Series, and I know our fans’ is too, so we’re all disappointed I think, collectively. We could’ve done better and we didn’t.”

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