The 21st century has been mighty good to the St. Louis Cardinals. Since 2000 arrived, the Cardinals have made the playoffs 11 times (second only to the New York Yankees, who have reached the postseason 12 times in the same period). Over the last 15 seasons, St. Louis has crossed the finish line with a losing record but once (in 2007). Four National League championships and two World Series victories have been added to the franchise record book since the millennium’s arrival.
But how will the 2014 Cardinals fit among the franchise’s flag-waving predecessors? This year’s club is but a blurry reflection of the 2013 National League champions. Consider the infield: first-baseman Matt Adams, second-baseman Kolten Wong, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and third-baseman Matt Carpenter. None of these players manned the same position on an everyday basis a year ago. And offensive production has been inconsistent at best. Two-hundred and sixty pounds of Adams has yielded the Cardinals three more home runs (15) than 185 pounds of Wong. For the first time since 1968, St. Louis sends a team to the postseason without a player scoring or driving in 100 runs.
In many respects, the numbers don’t add up for a division champion. The Cardinals finished last in the National League with 105 home runs, and next to last with only 57 stolen bases (one more than San Francisco). In the most vital category of all — runs scored — St. Louis scored fewer (619) than any of the National League’s other four playoff teams. No power. No speed. No problem?
St. Louis pitched its way to October baseball. The Cardinal staff combined for 23 shutouts, four more than any other team in the National League and the most for the franchise since 1968, the pitching-dominated season that led to lowering the mound to regain some advantage for hitters. The Cardinal bullpen led the league in saves with 55 (45 of them by Trevor Rosenthal), a figure all the more impressive when you consider St. Louis went 32-23 in one-run games. The Cards never won more than six games in a row, but they never lost more than four straight. This despite lengthy stays on the disabled list for starting pitcher Michael Wacha (last year’s postseason hero) and catcher Yadier Molina, the franchise’s backbone.
Waiting for the Cardinals in a division series that starts Friday are the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team St. Louis vanquished in last year’s National League Championship Series. If there’s a team that can top the Cardinals’ one-two pitching punch of Adam Wainwright (20-9, 2.38 ERA) and Lance Lynn (15-10, 2.74) it’s the Dodgers with Cy Young Award perennial Clayton Kershaw (21-3, 1.77) and Zack Greinke (17-8, 2.71). The Dodgers’ rotation also features former Memphis Redbird Dan Haren (13-11, 4.02), while the Cardinals have three men vying for two more spots in the rotation: Wacha, John Lackey, and Shelby Miller. Keep this in mind: In a five-game series, a team’s Game 3 starter can swing the series (and be the difference for the Cardinals between facing Kershaw once or twice).
The Dodgers took three of four from the Cardinals in L.A. in late June, outscoring St. Louis 17-4. Then the Cardinals won two of three between the two teams at Busch Stadium right after the All-Star break (beating Greinke and Haren). The Dodgers will have home-field advantage this time, meaning Game 5 would be pitched by Kershaw at Dodger Stadium, a scenario no Cardinal fan would embrace. (Don’t think Kershaw has forgotten his meltdown in Game 6 of last year’s NLCS at Busch. The best pitcher in baseball is motivated.)
When they take the field for Game 2 Saturday night, the Cardinals will be playing their 50th playoff game since 2011. The team and setting will feel familiar even if there’s no such thing as a “fall chill” in L.A. air. But any return to the World Series for St. Louis will require new heroics from a new face or two. Postseason butterflies never get old.