Before playoff action begins and the nerves really start to glisten and fry on the pan, let’s take a look back at the things that got the Cardinals to the playoffs. Sometimes people overlook the 162 struggle that pushes a team into the wonderfully historical range of championship contention. No offense to the NFL or NHL but baseball is a slow grind and isn’t easy to follow because it is slower than most sports and involves so many variables and ever changing attributes. You have to be stone cold crazy to truly love a baseball team because things get dramatic and the stress levels reach a new height. While others beg for action as soon as possible, I am happy to sit back, relax and bide my time before the playoff battles commence. So, without further delay, let’s look back at 10 things that propelled the Cards this year. Coming to you in an order that doesn’t hold any favorites and starting with….
1. The emergence of Matt Carpenter. Out of nowhere, a good utility guy in 2012 turned into a league wide known commodity in 2013. One year did a lot of things for Carp Jr. and he won’t soon be forgotten. You don’t break a Stan Musial record for single season doubles(55) and hide from St. Louis fans. Carpenter was unbelievable this year. He led the league in doubles, hits(199), runs scored(126) and multi-hit games. Carpenter hit .318 and reloaded the lineup into a credible threat all year long. For the first time in years, the team had a legit leadoff man and second baseman inside one ballplayer. Matt Carpenter was the ultimate bargain in 2013, providing the Cards with a smart crafty player who delivered in a number of ways.
2. Edward Mujica rescuing the closer position. Sure, Eddie burned out in September but please don’t forget what he did before that. He recorded 37 saves in 43 chances without a bit of experience in the closer role. He came to the team in the middle of 2012 as a setup guy and when Mitchell Boggs fumbled the closer spot early in April, Mujica was given the ball and surprised everybody who watched this team. National media had no idea who he was and hitters had no idea how to put their bat on his nasty splitter. He didn’t allow walks and threw strikes, and while it came back to haunt him in the final month, Mujica’s work was amazing for 4 1/2 months. Without him closing games, the Cards don’t win the central and may not be in the playoffs. As the fans have realized the hard way, if you have no closer, you have little chance to succeed. Thanks Chief!
3. Adam Wainwright reminded us why he is one of the best in baseball. It’s hard to find one thing that is wrong about this guy. He is a great ambassador of the game, does work in the community, keeps things light in the dugout and also happens to really love barbecue. He did rock a weird mustache in 2010 but that’s old news. Wainwright rebounded from a healing process in 2012(up and down season) into a Cy Young pitcher in 2013. When Chris Carpenter went down for good, Waino took control of this team. He pitched 241 innings, struck out 35 and only intentionally walked TWO guys all year. He has no time for handing free passes to hitters but he surely isn’t going to do it on purpose. He threw 5 complete games and had 2 shutouts. His 19-9 record was accompanied by a 2.94 ERA. His numbers are Cy Young caliber even if he won’t win the award. Waino returned to greatness and pitched brilliantly in September when the club needed him most. After two rough humanizing starts against Cincinnati, Waino finished with 5 quality starts and went 4-0 to finish the season. Aces can get knocked down. It’s important for them to get up in time to right the ship. He takes the mound Thursday in Game 1.
4. Yadi Molina had another MVP caliber season. If Carpenter’s season was a surprise, Molina just did his thing again. He worked a pitching staff that included more than 12 rookies and anchored the defensive position like a vault does inside a bank. Molina threw out more baserunners than his usual load and put on another clinic at the plate. In 136 games, he hit .319, collected 44 doubles, 161 hits, and knocked in 80 runners. In 505 at bats, he only struck out 55 times, or basically what Chris Davis does in a month. Molina hit .333 against lefties and .315 against righties. With runners in scoring position, he hit .373. Molina is so good we take it for granted but he is truly the most valuable player on the Cards and arguably in the majors. Without him in the lineup in the second half of August, the Cards were a completely different team and not a good one.
5. Matt Holliday maintained his model of consistency. A .268 hitter at the beginning of September, Holliday enjoyed a red hot final month to finish with a .300 batting average. His 22 home runs and 94 RBI aren’t earth shattering, but proved that this guy gives you the best bang for your buck at his position. Look around the league and tell me 5 players who have a higher WAR(wins above replacement) than Holliday. His defense is adequate but his hustle is genuine. How many high priced hitters jog down the first base line. Well, Holliday sprints down the line. He takes out second basemen on potential DP balls. He runs around third like the catcher is a would be tackler in football. He plays baseball with reckless abandon and doesn’t leave much to chance. He also provides the numbers that we have come to expect. 2013 didn’t represent a total drop for Holliday. He hit .300 for the first time since 2010, scored more runs than he did in 2012 and lowered his strikeout total from 132 in 2012 to 86 this season. When the weather gets hot, Holliday’s bat heats up. In his last 10 games, Holliday hit .514 and drove in 12 runners. He barely struck out in September. For a guy who is rarely called clutch, he delivers the timely hits at the necessary hour. He is the consistency that many players can’t reach. Matt Holliday, in a simple manner, gets it done.
6. Who led the Cards in RBI in 2013 yet barely played in the final month? Allen Craig. He drove in 97 runners and hit .315 with 160 hits and 71 runs scored in only 134 games. His most efficient stat. Hitting with runners in scoring position. Craig collected 83 of his 97 RBI with runners in scoring position and hit .454. Ridiculous and also a reason to be a bit sad about his absence in the playoffs. Surely, the Cards got help in that position in the form of Matt Adams(more on him in a bit) but it’s still a rough picture without the best clutch hitter in baseball. Allen Craig is silky smooth under pressure and will hopefully be able to contribute in some manner in the playoffs.
7. Matt Adams was the resourceful charger on this team. When something was needed, Adam provided it. When Matt Holliday went down in July, Matt Adams got a chance to play. When the team needed a pinch hitter in the late innings, Adams hit well over .300 in the role. In September when Craig went down with a bad foot injury, Adams more than answered the call. He bashed baseballs for the entire month. In 296 at bats, Adams hit 17 home runs and knocked in 51. He was deadly in September, hitting .315 with 8 HR and 15 RBI and slugging .609. When the team needed him most, Adams delivered. Think about what the big guy can do with 550 at bats. Ridiculous. His first base skills also improved over the course of the season. You could see his range widening with each start and that just comes down to hard work and sessions with Jose Oquendo. Adams presented GM John Mozelaik with an opportunity to not have to overextend in talks with Carlos Beltran after the season. He showed the Cards what he could do after teasing the team in 2012. In his last 10 games, Big Country Fried Steak Biff Whiskey Adams hit .368. He deserves a full time spot in 2014 but what is this guy going to do in the playoffs?
8. The Cards bullpen. It’s hard to give space to each individual member of this young arsenal but let me try. Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, and Seth Maness were sensational and became key assets down the stretch. Rosenthal went from setup man to closer in the final week, closing three highly important games against the Nationals fierce lineup. Trevor turned up the heat and delivered an all around solid season, striking out 108 batters in only 75.1 innings. He allowed 6 HR and hitters could only scrap a .223 BA against. Rosenthal is a guy who can do a number of things and figures to be the closer in the playoffs and to start the 2014 season. This season, he told us he was for real. Siegrist is the lefthanded smoking gun that caught MLB’s attention. Whenever the Cards played on FOX or ESPN, the commentators were gushing over this kid. He came out of nowhere, typical Cards rookie style, and delivered a nearly perfect 2013 season. In 39.2 innings, he allowed TWO runs to score. That’s it. Two runners. He struck out 50 and walked 18. He has nasty stuff that starts with a 99 mph fastball and ends with a killer changeup. He could be a reliever or starter in 2014 but this month he will make hitters weary. Seth Maness was the double play ball machine. Out of nowhere in June, this kid came up and was able to enter an inning and induce a double play grounder more than 15 times. It was automatic and precise. He gave up a ton of hits but he was at his best coming into a burning building and putting out a team’s fire and taking away their hope with one pitch. These three guys fantastic this season.
9. Joe Kelly and Michael Wacha restoring order to the rotation in August and September. In his last 10 starts dating back to August 11th, Kelly was 7-2 with a 2.34 ERA. He allowed a ton of baserunners, walked too many but had the ability to pitch out of jams and also pitch very well on the road. His road warrior ability is a reason for him to be in the playoff rotation. On the road in 2013, Kelly was 5-1 with a 2.07 ERA. Wacha came up early in the season and impressed people but only during his second stint with the team did he truly open eyes. After 4 sharp appearances out of the bullpen, Wacha was 2-1 in 5 starts and only allowed 6 earned runs in 31.1 innings. His season ended in resounding fashion when he nearly no hit the Nationals, pitching 8.2 innings and showing dynamite control and command into the final batter. Only a scrappy luck single took away a no hitter but when he walked off the mound for the Cards, we knew he belonged in this rotation for years to come. Kelly and Wacha sealed the leak in the rotation.
10. Mike Matheny’s work as a manager. The second year skipper gets a lot of damage from his overextended loyalty to certain players(Mitchell Boggs in particular) but people often overlook what he has done in only 2 years. Unlike the Dodgers, who had a 223 million payroll and no real competition in the West, Matheny and his club had to battle the two wild card team, PITT and CIN, for the entire 162 games. This wasn’t like Freddy Gonzalez’s situation in Atlanta, where there wasn’t a threat after the All Star break to his team. Matheny had to deal with injuries to several key players, including Chris Carpenter, Jason Motte, Rafael Furcal, Jaime Garcia and Allen Craig. Matheny is a man that believe in his young players and set them loose in key spots. He is a blunt speaker and a manager who rightfully preaches the importance of taking one game at a time. When the team got knocked down in August after losing 4 of 5 to Pittsburgh, Matheny’s club didn’t wilt and die. They fought back and a good portion of the credit goes to the man pulling the strings and making the moves. For every bad situation with Boggs, there were 4 great moves made with other players. He inserted Mujica into the closer role, didn’t hesitate in putting Matt Adams at first base, and handed the ball to Kelly and Wacha to save things. When John Mozeliak didn’t make a move to help the team, Matheny used what he had to make it work. He doesn’t always make great decisions but who does? Tony La Russa is a hall of fame manager but he drove us as nuts as Matheny does. Every manager makes moves that set off alarms but we aren’t in their shoes. I think Matheny deserves consideration for manager of the year.
That’s it. Play ball boys! Let’s see how far this streaking team takes us into October. 2006’s team played bad in September and lit it up in the playoffs. 2011’s team played amazing baseball in September and continued in October. You just never know and that is what makes this game great. Personally, I think the Cards are a dangerous team with loads of depth. Watch out everybody. The Rogues in Red are coming through and remember, you must deal with them at Busch to get past them. I will break down the Division Series round when I find out who the Cards play. Until then, thanks for staying.
PHOTO CREDIT-Getty Images