Phillies shut out, sweep Cardinals and end last run for Molina and Pujols

When the end came, with so little fanfare and all of the fireworks still in their casings waiting for another year or another event, Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols watched from the dugout, having done all they could against Philadelphia to extend their careers one more night.

The Cardinals, their leading hitters stymied time and time again, had yet to muster a run in an elimination game when it was up to the bottom of the order to create something, anything to keep the season alive, to keep two beloved Cardinals’ careers going.

The two of them had already stretched it 90 feet farther on their own.

Like Pujols in the eighth inning, Molina delivered a single in the ninth to get the tying run on base. Like Pujols, he was lifted for a pinch-runner. They were in the dugout when former teammate Edmundo Sosa caught a pop up in foul territory to clinch the Phillies’ 2-0 victory and sweep of the National League Wild Card in front of 48,515 fans, the largest crowd in postseason history at Busch Stadium.

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The Cardinals season comes to an end as the only division champ not to advance to the division series. After a season teammates and friends called “magical,” two Cardinals see their careers end with the shortest appearance of their five postseasons together.

Closer Zach Eflin got Tommy Edman to popup with runners at the corners for the final out of the game and the best-of-three series, sending the Phillies off to play Atlanta in the NLDS.

The Cardinals are left with another winter wondering why their offense goes so, so cold every autumn, the middle of the order withering as annually as leaves.

In what could have been the final plate appearance and the final swing of his career, Pujols did what he spent a generation doing — he hit.

With one out in the eighth inning, Pujols stung a ball down the left-field line that put the tying run at first and got the game back to the middle of the order, where the Cardinals’ two MVP candidates loomed. It was Pujols’ last 90 feet. He was replaced for a pinch-runner and watched from the dugout as the inning fizzled. Phillies reliever Seranthony Dominguez struck out both Goldschmidt and Arenado to end the inning.

At that point in the series, Arenado and Goldschmidt were a combined zero-for-six with five strikeouts when a runner was on base Saturday. They were one-for-15 in the series with six strikeouts, and the one hit was Arenado’s single Friday.

The Phillies starters in the series, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, combined to author 13 scoreless innings and hold the Cardinals to six hits. Four of those came in Game 2 against Nola, but the right-hander at every turn was able to squelch rallies. Twice a runner got on ahead of the middle of the order, and each time Nola spun through Goldschmidt and Arenado, and only once did they get a ball in play.

While most recent and most profound against the Phillies, the offensive struggles of the Cardinals in October trace back to their last appearance in the National League Championship Series in 2019. In that series, the Cardinals hit a record low .130 as a team. They haven’t perked up much since. Entering the ninth inning Saturday, the Cardinals were 31-for-215 (.144) in their previous seven non-pandemic season playoff games.

They had only five extra-base hits in that span.

Three players in their first playoff series — Lars Nootbaar and pinch-hitters Juan Yepez and Nolan Gorman — had five of the Cardinals’ first 10 hits in the series.

With closer Ryan Helsley unavailable due to a finger injury, Marmol said his preferred closer for the game was starter Miles Mikolas. The right-hander would not get that chance. Although he only allowed two runs, Mikolas stared at the Phillies order coming back around for a third look in the fifth inning. Down by a run with two on and the Phillies threatening to widen that gap, the Cardinals went to the bullpen. Instead of trying to hold a lead like in the ninth inning of Game 2, this time they were just trying to hold on.

Monty to the rescue?

At the game’s first major inflection point, manager Oliver Marmol chose to replace his starter with a starter in a move the Cardinals workshopped in the week leading up to the playoffs. When right-hander Mikolas found himself with runners at the corners and one out in the fifth inning, the Phillies’ lineup invited the series of matchups Marmol wanted for a left-hander.

Having outlined that exact moment earlier in the day with reporters and suggesting Steven Matz could be the call, Marmol went to his other lefty starter, Jordan Montgomery.

In his first relief appearance since September 2019, Montgomery walked the first batter he faced — No. 9 hitter Bryson Stott — on four pitches to load the bases. Having made the situation worse, Montgomery regained control of it. Kyle Schwarber came to the plate with the bases loaded lugging a zero-for-20 playoff slump, and Montgomery held him to a sacrifice fly. That widened the Phillies’ lead to 2-0 but got Montgomery a valuable out. He struck out Rhys Hoskins to end the inning and wait for the Cardinals’ offense to arrive.

Montgomery pitched a scoreless sixth, waiting for the Cardinals’ offense to arrive.

He started the seventh, still waiting.

By the eighth, it was another pitcher’s turn to wait.

Montgomery skipped around three walks to pitch 2 2/3 scoreless innings and shepherd the game to the Cardinals’ back-end relievers, beginning with Giovanny Gallegos.

Cardinals fail to capture momentum

The Cardinals were willing to give Alec Bohm second base if it meant holding dashing catcher J.T. Realmuto at third base as the Phillies tried to bait the defense into a throw. Bohm’s refusal to take it became a chance for the Cardinals to turn game-shifting defense into an alarm clock for the offense.

As Bohm and Realmuto took their leads from the corners, Molina waved his mitt down the third base line and seemed to spy the play the Phillies had in motion.

Montgomery threw to first to get Bohm breaking from the base. A staring contest ensued as Goldschmidt let Bohm go for second and kept an eye on Realmuto at third. Bohm stopped between the bases. As Realmuto retreated, Goldschmidt threw to Tommy Edman who chased Bohm back toward first for a tag that Goldschmidt applied for Realmuto slid home. The pickoff kept the Phillies from widening their lead at least to 3-0, and it turned the inning and potential momentum over to the top of the Cardinals’ lineup.

Not even a single from Pujols could sustain it.

With Pujols at first, Nola struck out Goldschmidt and Arenado. It was the second time in the game that Nola faced those two hitters with a teammate on base, and they combined to go zero-for-four with three strikeouts. Entering the eighth inning of Game 2, the Cardinals’ Nos. 2-5 hitters were a combined two-for-25 with seven strikeouts.

Harper lifts Phils into lead

The reigning NL MVP spent this season with a torn ligament in his elbow, and he had not shown the same sock since returning from an injured thumb. He struggled to a .221 average in his first 36 games and rarely connected for power.

That was until his Saturday started with a delectable curveball.

Leading off the second inning, Bryce Harper pounced on the first pitch he saw from Mikolas and sent it streaking into the right-field seats. Harper, hitless in Game 1, had only one home run in his previous 74 at-bats. But if it’s October and it’s against the Cardinals he has made a habit of extra bases. The home run that jumped the Phillies to a 1-0 lead was Harper’s fourth playoff hit against the Cardinals, his first since leaving the Nationals as a free agent. The other three were a double, a triple, and another home run.

Hit hard, but hardly hits

Two of the five hardest struck pitches from Game 1 belonged to Pujols and Arenado, and after connecting for his, Arenado was convinced it was a home run. It proved to be just like Pujols’ — an out caught by the center fielder. The trend continued early in Game 2 as the Cardinals hit the ball hard or on a line, but hardly had any hits.

Molina led off the third inning with a two-strike liner down the third base line that Phillies’ 6-foot-5 third baseman Bohm snared. In the fourth, Arenado pulled a similar line drive closer to the line and it did not escape Bohm’s reach, much to Arenado apparent frustration. Arenado hit a ball 388 feet that left his bat at 104 mph in Game 1, and afterward nodded in agreement that he thought it was a home run.

“It’s not the first itme we played here, (and) when the ballpark takes away big hits we know how to deal with it mentally,” Arenado said. “It’s not shocking.”

But it also wasn’t the jolt the offense needed.

“I’d love to single them to death, if that’s what it takes,” Marmol said before Game 2. “But we’ve done a pretty good job of driving the baseball, hitting it hard and hitting our share of doubles and homers, and that’s played well for us. That ball Albert hit? I believe it was 108 (mph). I’ll take that any day. The one Nolan hit? Usually it’s a souvenir. We took good swings. It didn’t work out.”

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