ST. LOUIS — There was really nothing they could say to soothe their misery or make it all magically go away.
So, most of the St. Louis Cardinals fled early in the aftermath of their stunning 6-3 defeat to the Philadelphia Phillies, before reporters entered their deathly quiet clubhouse.
The players who stayed, or couldn’t get away before it was too late, talked barely above a whisper, trying to explain what happened.
And the one Cardinal everyone wanted to speak with, wondering why he was even pitching, and whether he could pitch again this year, was gone getting X-rays at a local hospital.
The Cardinals have had some brutal losses in their 141-year history, but what occurred Friday afternoon in front of a shocked sellout crowd at Bush Stadium, well, is something no one has ever witnessed.
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The Cardinals have been to the postseason 31 times but never before had they blown a game like this.
The Cardinals had a 93-0 record when leading by two or more runs in a postseason game.
They now are 93-1.
“You can’t even explain it,’’ Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado. “Everything is looking great, and then it’s over, and all that’s remembered is that ninth inning.’’
The Cardinals had a 2-0 lead over the Phillies, needing just two more outs, with the crowd stomping their feet and ready to dance in the aisles.
Twenty minutes later, they were trying to explain how the Phillies scored six runs in the ninth inning, turning a 2-0 defeat into a 6-3 victory in Game 1 of the National League wild card series.
In a magical Cardinals season, with Albert Pujols electrifying a city one last time, their 9th inning could be a nightmare that haunts them all of the way until opening day.
The Cardinals can still take the best-of-three series, of course, by winning the next two games at Busch Stadium. But they blew this game in such dramatic fashion that it may not be so easy to recover.
“I think we’ll be fine,’’ said Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, trying to get anyone to believe it. “These guys all year have done a nice job of whether we win a big game or lose a big game. This will be no different.
“We know what’s at stake. We either win or go home. We’ll embrace that.’’
They may first have to dissect just what happened in a game they had no right losing.
It was a ninth-inning house of horrors.
It started off innocently enough, with closer Ryan Helsley striking out Rhys Hoskins. Then it all happened.
Helsley, who jammed his right middle finger Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and hadn’t even tried throwing breaking balls in a bullpen session before the game, gave up a single to J.T. Realmuto.
Then, he got ahead of Bryce Harper, 1-and-2, and walked him.
And then another walk to Nick Castellanos to load the bases.
The Cardinals, finally realizing something was wrong with Helsley, called the bullpen. They instructed Jack Flaherty and Andre Pallante to warm up.
It was too late.
Helsley bounced a ball in the dirt, and two pitches later, hit Alec Bohm with a pitch, forcing in the Phillies’ first run. It was the 14th ball Helsley had thrown in 23 pitches.
Marmol and the the Cardinals medical staff went to the mound, and Helsley told them he had lost feeling in his finger. He threw a warmup pitch. It sailed three feet from the strike zone. Marmol signaled for Pallante, and not Flaherty, to face Jean Segura.
“Pallante is a high-high ground ball guy,’’ Marmol explained. “That match-up has about 70% [success rate]. You got one out. The situation is basically you want to end the game there with a ground ball double play.
“If there’s two outs, I go to Jack and go for the punch out. So, you’re just playing the outs and probability there.’’
It backfired, just like everyone in that inning.
Oh, Pallante got his ground ball just fine, and perhaps it could have been a double play, but second baseman Tommy Edman wasn’t playing at double-play depth. He was playing in, giving him a chance to throw out the runner at the plate. It turned out he was in no man’s land. The ball shot past him, two runs scored, and the Cardinals trailed for the first time, 3-2.
“I think when that ball got through,’’ Segura said, “we were really able take that momentum.’’
The Cardinals’ nightmare, it turned out, was just getting started.
Pallante induced yet another groundball, with Byson Stott hitting the ball right to first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Instead of touching first base, he went home and pinch-runner Edmundo Sosa scored: 4-2.
Brandon Marsh stepped to the plate and hit what appeared could be a double-play ball to Arenado, their Gold Glove third baseman. Instead, it went under his glove. It was now 5-2. Kyle Schwarber tacked on the final run with a sacrifice fly.
When the inning mercifully ended, the crowd was loudly booing and streaming towards the exists.
It could be a horrible memory and surely will invoke a flood of second-guessing.
Why was Helsley still pitching in the ninth inning considering his injury? He wound up throwing 33 pitches, and sitting in a local hospital, awaiting X-rays to determine if his finger will even permit him to throw another inning this season.
“Obviously, we’re aware of the issue with the finger,’’ Marmol said. “It wasn’t an issue early on. Didn’t show any signs of it. …Then he said he started to lose feel.’’
Why have Edman play in at that moment instead of double-play depth?
“We’re in what we call an X-play there where you’re tight enough that if it’s hit soft,’’ Marmol said, “you’re going to the plate. If it’s hit hard, you can turn it. You’re going to have to get the right ground ball against Segura. He can run. So, you have to defend against both.’’
What happened on the play with Arenado, having a potential double-play ball turn into another run-scoring single.
“That’s what we’ve been doing all year,’’ Arenado says, “we’re aggressive. We try to make aggressive plays. And it wasn’t the right play. I should have just gone back and gotten the safe out.’’
Says Marmol: “The guy makes every play in the world. So you just chalk is up to baseball and you keep moving.’’
Now, the Phillies are on the verge of winning their first postseason series since 2010.
“When you got one of the best closers on the mound, and take a game like that, come from behind …’’ Segura said, laughing, “it’s special. A lot of adrenaline in my body, just like when you give a little kid a toy and jumping around and happiness.
“I mean, it’s such a great feeling.’’
And such a feeling of regret for a team that gave away a game in epic and historic fashion.
“I don’t want us to be remembered for that,’’ Arenado says, “I really don’t. It hurts, but we can overcome it.
“I really want to believe that.’’