The Cardinals don't belong here
Jamie Squire / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Identifying the strengths of a team vying for a pennant shouldn't be a struggle.

The Houston Astros, for example, have Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke and a veritable army of ridiculously good hitters. The New York Yankees hit home runs with obscene regularity. The Washington Nationals, much like the Astros, have a formidable triumvirate of starting pitchers in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. It's plainly evident why these clubs are still around.

However, this isn't the case for the Cardinals. St. Louis is a demonstrably unspectacular club that has enjoyed considerable success in 2019 - it won 91 regular-season games, then outlasted the Atlanta Braves in the best-of-five NLDS - despite a mediocre offense and mediocre pitching staff. (Admittedly, they're pretty solid defensively, but trumpeting a club's chops in the field when they can't hit and can't really pitch is a real "Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?" move.)

At most, their lineup contains two impact hitters, Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter; the former did less damage at the plate this year than Hunter Dozier, whom you've probably never heard of, while the latter was more punchless than Hanser Alberto, who plays for the Baltimore Orioles. Meanwhile, after Jack Flaherty, their rotation is populated exclusively by beguiling pitch-to-contact types who whiffed fewer batters per innings this season than Homer Bailey, whose career ostensibly ended years ago.

However, because they're the St. Louis Cardinals, and because there exists some cosmic edict that the St. Louis Cardinals can't suffer in perpetuity like other organizations, they're here, improbably, one step away from the World Series. (How'd they do it, you ask? Mostly by beating up on bad teams - they went 49-29 against sub-.500 clubs - and playing in a supremely mediocre division.)

Less than 24 hours into their best-of-seven National League Championship Series matchup with the Nationals, it's abundantly clear the Cardinals don't belong here, that they're merely a figurehead division champion with no real claim to the game's seat of power.

In two games against the Nationals, the Cardinals have scored one run on four hits, falling 2-0 in the series opener Friday at Busch Stadium before dropping a 3-1 decision on Saturday afternoon. Their collective NLCS slash line sits at .070/.145/.088, good for a .233 OPS. Pitchers, as a group, managed a .322 OPS this season.

As such, disengaged baseball fans might assume that some permutation of Scherzer, Strasburg, and/or Corbin started the first two games for Washington. They would be wrong. It was, in fact, Anibal Sanchez - the soft-throwing, 35-year-old, personified "Can I come, too?" of the Nationals' rotation - who got the ball in Game 1. And in a performance as inspiring as it was discrediting for St. Louis' lineup, Sanchez - who pitched into the eighth inning just once during the regular season - held the Cardinals hitless for 7 2/3 innings in the series opener, flummoxing them with divergent fastballs and an occasional eephus-like changeup.

It didn't augur well for their matchup with Scherzer, and, predictably, the three-time Cy Young winner bullied the Cardinals in Game 2, allowing no hits through six innings before finishing with 11 strikeouts over seven shutout frames. Moreover, it also marked the first time since 2010 the Cardinals were held to three hits or less in consecutive games.

And, look, there's no shame in losing to Scherzer. You're supposed to lose to Scherzer. But the Cardinals only managed one hard-hit ball against Sanchez, too. (Conversely, Miles Mikolas, who surrendered only one run over six innings in a losing effort in Game 1, allowed the Nationals six hard-hit balls.) And that haplessness against Sanchez - who kept hitters off-balance enough during the regular season to put up a 5.10 xFIP - felt weirdly just. Finally, it seemed, the Cardinals' opportunism had run out, exposing them for what they really are: a deficient team that ended up playing for the National League pennant because everyone else - from the Cubs to the Brewers to the Braves - kind of blew it.

And while baseball, more than any other sport, allows deficient teams to slip through the clutches of superior opponents, that won't happen in this case - not with the Nationals up 2-0 in the series with Strasburg and Corbin lined up to start next. The Cardinals' season will end early next week, and, frankly, it was long overdue.

They never belonged here in the first place.

Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.

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The Cardinals don't belong here
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