ST. LOUIS — The baseball schedule is so unforgiving that most teams, by the end, know just who they are. The St. Louis Cardinals are still searching, and they are running out of time.
In the first two games of the National League Championship Series against the Washington Nationals, the Cardinals lost twice and scored just one run. A pinch-hitter, Jose Martinez, was 2 for 2. The rest of the hitters were 2 for 55.
“It’s just pretty obvious,” said Paul Goldschmidt, who singled to break up Max Scherzer’s no-hitter in the seventh inning of Game 2. “You score one run, you’re not going to win many games.”
If you score 10 in the first inning, you have a much better shot. The Cardinals did that in their division series clincher in Atlanta, coasting to a 13-1 victory. But the Nationals have unplugged their offense and hidden the power cord.
“That’s kind of been the story of our season, really,” first baseman Matt Carpenter said. “Our offense, at times, has been hit or miss. We’ve had stretches where we’ve struggled to score and we’ve had stretches where we’ve just poured it on. Hopefully we can get one where we pour it on here in the next couple of days, get some confidence back and get some guys rolling.”
But the Cardinals could not solve the soft-throwing Anibal Sanchez on Friday night, or the hard-throwing Scherzer in the shadows on Saturday afternoon. Now Stephen Strasburg awaits them in Game 3 on Monday at Nationals Park, with Patrick Corbin to follow in Game 4.
Strasburg has 21 strikeouts and one walk in 15 October innings, with a 2.40 earned run average. Corbin, a two-time All-Star, was 8-2 with a 2.40 E.R.A. at home in the regular season.
“I feel like we’re road warriors,” Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong said. “We’ve found our niche on the road; we know how to play on the road. We know the pitchers we’re up against, the odds we’re up against. But that’s what we’re all about. That’s what we love.”
The Cardinals are an unlikely underdog. They are playing in their 10th N.L.C.S. in the last 20 seasons, and their 11 World Series titles are second only to the Yankees’ 27. But they missed the playoffs the last three seasons as the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers took over the N.L. Central, and needed an all-around effort to return.
“This year, we have a complete team that is doing a lot of different things well that we haven’t been doing the last few years,” starter Adam Wainwright said. “This year we played much better defense, this year we ran the bases much better, this year our starting pitching was a little better, this year our bullpen was certainly much better. We have more thump in the middle of our lineup than we’ve had in years.”
The thumpers — Goldschmidt, Paul DeJong and Marcell Ozuna — combined for 94 homers this season. But the Cardinals had only 210 homers over all and 764 runs scored this season, both figures ranking last among teams with winning records.
That sets these Cardinals apart from their last championship team in 2011. Those Cardinals were a wild-card team, but they led the N.L. in runs scored and beat three Philadelphia Phillies aces — Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay — in a first-round upset. They battered another ace, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Zack Greinke, in the N.L.C.S., and ravaged the Texas Rangers’ bullpen in the World Series.
This time, the Nationals’ aces have dispatched the Cardinals with ease, and relievers Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson — who returned to save Game 2 after missing the opener for the birth of his daughter — have been sharp this month.
The Cardinals have hope in Game 3 because of their starter, Jack Flaherty, a 23-year-old right-hander with a 1.13 E.R.A., postseason included, since the All-Star break. The rookie Dakota Hudson, a 16-game winner in the regular season, will start Game 4.
“This series is far from over, and we have a guy going that’s really the best guy in baseball in the second half, undisputed, going for us on Monday,” Manager Mike Shildt said, referring to Flaherty. “I’m very optimistic, still, about this series.”
This is how the Cardinals scripted it, after all, managing their young pitchers’ workloads so they would be available in October. It was a deliberate effort not to repeat the Nationals’ infamous decision to shut down Strasburg before the 2012 playoffs to protect his long-term health. The Cardinals beat Washington in the division series that fall, and it took four more tries for the Nationals to advance to the N.L.C.S.
Now that they have, they seem eager to make it a short stay. They could be just two games away from the World Series, which has not come to Washington since 1933.
“The atmosphere in the playoffs at Nationals Park has been incredible,” Scherzer said. “They come out and they go nuts from the first pitch. So I have a feeling it’s even going to be more crazy given what we have done, and really our first postseason win as an organization. I think it means a lot to everybody in D.C.”
Unless the Cardinals quickly solve Scherzer’s fellow pitchers, the District can start planning the party.