WASHINGTON -- The St. Louis Cardinals threw 23,884 pitches in the regular season. They threw 756 more in eliminating the Braves in the division series. It took just 33 pitches in the third inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series for their season to unravel, however, sending the Cardinals to the brink of elimination against the Washington Nationals.
Here's how one frustrating inning, full of some bad luck and some ground balls with eyes, unfolded:
Pitch No. 4: Down two games in the series but with ace Jack Flaherty on the mound, the Cardinals are feeling confident about their chances behind a pitcher who owned a 1.12 ERA since the All-Star break. Flaherty gets ahead of No. 8 hitter Victor Robles 1-2, but Robles fouls off a 96 mph fastball.
Pitch No. 5: Robles fouls off another 96 mph heater. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt goes over to the railing, but the popup falls harmlessly into the first row of seats. There is a ramp between the railing and the seats, so he can't reach into the stands to make a catch.
Pitch No. 6: Flaherty throws a slider. Right-handed batters hit .111 against his slider in the second half. It has become one of the best, most devastating sliders in the game, one that racks up both strikeouts and worm burners. Robles hits it up the middle -- not hard, just 76.5 mph, a ball with an expected batting average, according to Statcast data, of .220. But the ball scoots past a diving Paul DeJong for a leadoff single.
"I didn't really execute that slider to Robles," Flaherty said. "He put a good at-bat together. He put the ball in play. Sometimes you find a hole, so he found a hole there."
Pitch No. 8: Stephen Strasburg lays a perfect bunt down the first-base line, right on the dirt between the grass and the chalk. The Cards have no chance to get the speedy Robles at second base as Strasburg executes a sacrifice.
Pitch No. 13: After getting ahead of Trea Turner 0-2 with two two-seamers just off the plate, Flaherty fires a 96 mph four-seamer past Turner for a foul tip and strike three for the second out. At this point, it looks good for Flaherty and the Cards. He's at 44 pitches in the game, he has recorded three strikeouts, and he's one out from keeping the game tied at zero through three.
Pitch No. 14: Leadoff man Adam Eaton swings at the first pitch, a 94 mph sinker, and sends a two-hopper to the left of second base. The exit velocity registers 105.5 mph, but because the first bounce comes in front of home plate, it isn't exactly a rocket up the middle. The expected batting average is just .240. Eaton is a spray hitter, so there's no shift in play here, and Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong is shaded toward the bag. The ball bounces into center field, and Robles jogs home with the first run of the game.
Pitch No. 18: With Flaherty ahead in the count 1-2, Anthony Rendon grounds a 96 mph fastball foul past the third-base bag. In Rendon's first at-bat, Flaherty got ahead with two quick strikes, then missed on four straight sliders low and away. After the hard foul ball, the next pitch will be ...
Pitch No. 19: ... a slider, low and away, bottom of the strike zone. Good pitch, good location. Rendon basically throws his bat at the ball and lofts a weak fly ball to medium-shallow left field, toward the line. Marcell Ozuna, a Gold Glove winner in 2017, hustles after it and slides feet first. He's in position to make the catch, but the ball falls out of his glove. Eaton sprints home from first. It isn't a routine play, but Rendon's fly ball had a hit probability of .180. It is generously ruled a double, and the Nationals lead 2-0.
"Rendon does a good job of not punching out on what I felt was a pretty good executed pitch," Flaherty said. "But that's what he does. That's why he is what he is."
Still, Ozuna had it ... and then didn't. "A tough play, tough play," Wong said. "Anytime you're sliding feet first like that trying to make a play, as soon as you hit the ground, there's going to be some kind of movement, and I think that's what jarred the ball out of his glove. The breaks haven't been going our way."
The Cardinals' defense has been rock-solid all season -- a key reason they made the playoffs after a three-season drought. Ozuna's metrics in left are very good: plus-8 defensive runs saved. "It's a play that he's clearly capable of making, but it's not a play you absolutely expect somebody to make," manager Mike Shildt said.
The inning continues.
Pitch No. 23: Juan Soto takes a slider on the inside corner for a strike. The count is 2-2.
Pitch No. 24: Soto fights off a curveball at the knees to stay alive. When you post a 0.91 ERA in the second half of the season, you're getting everybody out: righties, lefties, superstars, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth. It doesn't really matter. Left-handed batters hit .147 against Flaherty in the second half, including just .118 against his curveball. It was a good pitch. Credit Soto for the foul ball.
Pitch No. 25: Soto fouls off a slider.
Pitch No. 26: Fastball up in the zone. Ball three.
Pitch No. 27: Curveball below the knees. Ball four. Good, patient at-bat here by Soto, and with Rendon on second base, a walk to Soto isn't the worst thing for St. Louis, as it sets up a righty-righty matchup against Howie Kendrick. On the other hand, Soto's eight-pitch plate appearance runs up Flaherty's pitch count for the inning.
Pitch No. 30: Flaherty chunks a 1-1 fastball to Kendrick in the dirt, and the ball glances off Yadier Molina's glove for a wild pitch. It is in the dirt, so it is scored a wild pitch, but Molina doesn't do a good job of getting down to block the ball. The runners move to second and third.
Pitch No. 31: The next pitch is a 93.5 mph two-seamer running away from Kendrick. He lines a 105.5 mph laser into the gap in right-center, and the ball goes all the way to the wall, with both runners scoring easily to make it 4-0. While the first three hits included some bad luck, this one had a hit probability of .690 -- and I'd like to see the 31% that aren't hits.
"I didn't execute the one to Kendrick," Flaherty said. "That's the one pitch I want back."
The Cardinals are hitting a woeful .121 in this series, leaving the pitching staff no margin for error. And while the Cardinals are hitting .161 with two outs, the Nationals are hitting .350. A two-run inning becomes a four-run inning with Kendrick's hit.
The wild pitch left a base open, and Shildt has been generous with intentional walks in the postseason. "We could have put Kendrick on right there, but you get a guy like [Ryan] Zimmerman swinging the bat well right behind him," Shildt said. "Didn't make a pitch right there. That was probably the biggest part of that -- was that pitch at that moment."
Pitch No. 33: Zimmerman grounds out to end the inning.
Flaherty has had nine 30-pitch innings this season, including a 33-pitch seventh inning in Game 2 of the NLDS against Atlanta. This inning, however, was much more of a slow burn, a testament to how tough the top of the Nationals lineup is, a testament to the importance of not giving an inch to the other team, a testament to how an inning can fall apart with two outs.
Rendon put a ball in play. Ozuna couldn't quite make the catch, and that opened the door for a big, four-run rally -- a rally that might have slammed the door on the Cardinals' season.