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VOL. 129 | NO. 178 | Friday, September 12, 2014


Cardinals Finding Way Back to Playoffs

By Don Wade

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Everyone always says the expectations are highest in their clubhouse. But when the St. Louis Cardinals say it, well, it has a certain depth. The past decade has seen seven playoff trips and two World Series championships. And this season, the Cardinals are hunting their fourth straight Red October.

“We hold ourselves to a high expectation inside that clubhouse so we don’t need to take on any added expectations,” third baseman Matt Carpenter said back in March, when the Cardinals were here to play the Redbirds in an exhibition game that was cancelled because of poor field conditions. “Part of putting on this jersey every day is understanding what’s at stake and what we’re playing for.”

That day, everyone wearing a Cardinal uniform seemed to echo what the guy before him had said or the next guy would say. Not in the scripted way you sometimes get with, say, college basketball players who have been told to hold close to just a couple of talking points, but in a way that suggested an ongoing chemistry – something that is just about impossible to achieve in professional sports.

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright has helped the team to the lead in the National League Central over the Milwaukee Brewers.  

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

As ace pitcher Adam Wainwright said: “Everybody who plays here and loves it and everybody who leaves here wishes they were back here. And everybody who is not here wishes they were here.”

Standing in the third-base dugout at AutoZone Park that day, manager Mike Matheny matter-of-factly said: “You’ve got to have the right kind of clubhouse. All the speculation in the world gets you no runs and it doesn’t get you any outs on the mound, either. Now it’s fun because we get to go out there and actually see what we’ve got.”

Through 146 games what they had was an 80-66 record and a place atop the National League’s Central Division standings. They were 3.5 games ahead of Milwaukee, five games in front of Pittsburgh. As the days gradually start to grow cooler and October nears, it is fair to assess the Cardinals as intriguing. And pretty good. But certainly not flawless.

While Wainwright was in the National League Cy Young conversation for much of the season, that talk now begins and ends with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw. No Cardinal is in the MVP discussion and no one has put up imposing numbers. Free-agent shortstop Jhonny Peralta leads the team with 20 homers; left fielder Matt Holliday has 16 and first baseman Matt Adams 15.

Holliday is the only player with more than 70 runs batted in (81) and outfielder Jon Jay is leading the team in batting average (.316) despite the team’s best efforts to force speedster Peter Bourjos (.246) to take over Jay’s job in center. Holliday is toward the bottom of NL leaders for RBIs and Peralta ranks fourth among NL position players in WAR – Wins Above Replacement – at 5.8. Carpenter is third in runs scored with 91 but has been grinding all season, his batting average a pedestrian .275.

Catcher Yadier Molina missed several weeks with a finger injury and has not showed his usual pop at the plate. Matheny even used Bourjous to pinch-hit for Molina in the ninth inning against Cincinnati flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman, who was hitting 103 mph, in an effort to get a quicker bat into the mix. Bourjos struck out.

Outfield prospects Oscar Taveras and Randal Grichuk, who started the season in Memphis, have been in St. Louis a while now and have shown flashes of their potential but each is still hitting below .250.

Wainwright’s 17 wins lead the team and Lance Lynn has been shockingly consistent in compiling a 15-8 record and 2.80 ERA. Young Shelby Miller recently has had several strong starts that, if the postseason began now, probably have him getting the ball in a Game 3. John Lackey has a 5.05 ERA in eight starts since coming over from Boston and in his last outing was ejected for arguing balls and strikes; a veteran has to know better.

Trevor Rosenthal has 43 saves, but also six losses, and while still dominating at times has also reminded of the old Baltimore closer Don Stanhouse. Manager Earl Weaver dubbed Stanhouse “Full Pack” because his harrowing saves led the manager to chain-smoking.

Still, if you’re told on opening day you can have a 3.5 game lead through the first 146, you say thank you and take it. The Cards only won 83 games in 2006 and then sprayed champagne and raised the World Series trophy.

“We like our chances as much as anybody else,” Matheny said before season’s start.

Imperfect though they are, it’s a sentiment that is no less true today.

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