World Series contender: St. Louis Cardinals
Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is an MVP candidate this season, leading the team in hitting. (REUTERS)
One year ago at this time, the St. Louis Cardinals were in the midst of a cavalry charge towards the playoffs, one that would end with them making the post-season.
The momentum that the Cards built up simply to make the playoffs carried through to the end of the post-season and left them standing as the World Series champs.
A lot has changed for the Cardinals between then and now, but with a week to go it seems that a second late-season surge is possible thanks to the schedule which provided them with games against the lowly Chicago Cubs and even lowlier Houston Astros will lead them to the promised land.
With an 84-71 record heading into Wednesday night’s game, the Cardinals hold a 4½-game lead over both the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers, both teams appearing to have run out of gas.
Although the Cardinals ended up as the champs in 2011, few expected that set of miracles to repeat in 2012.
In fact, given what happened in their off-season, few expected the Cardinals to even be a post-season contender.
Just three days after their triumph over the Texas Rangers their legendary manager, Tony La Russa, announced his retirement, ending a 16-year run as the Cardinals skipper.
Replacing him would be their former catcher and one-time Blue Jay Mike Matheny who had never managed a day in his life at any level.
Leaving the team in the off-season would also be the top slugger in the game in the form of Albert Pujols, who over 11 seasons with the Cards belted 445 home runs and drove in 1,329 runs.
The Cardinals countered by signing free agent Carlos Beltran.
Still, no one knew what the loss of La Russa and Pujols would bring.
Now they are on the verge of hitting the playoffs and if they do they seem just as poised just as capable of making another lengthy, repeat run.
Offensively, the Cardinals have a handful of gifted players as their lineup boasts five players who have slugged 20-plus home runs.
Still, their offence has been mostly like the tide — it comes and goes — leaving them to score a bunch of runs in stretches and next to none at all through others.
Overall, Beltran has contributed with 30 home runs and 26 doubles and driven in 91 runs.
Their most feared hitter remains left fielder Matt Holliday, who has counted 36 doubles, 27 homers and has driven in 100 runs.
The other lethal bats in the lineup belong to third baseman David Freese (24 doubles, 20 homers, 79 RBIs) and Allen Craig (34 doubles, 22 homers, 89 RBIs.
In saving the best for last, there is the MVP performance of catcher Yadier Molina, who in 132 games has produced 28 doubles, 21 homers and driven in 72 runs while hitting a team-high .322.
Molina is also regarded as the best defensive catcher in the league and holds sway over one of the better rotations in the game.
Molina is also saving his best production at the plate for the most meaningful time of the season.
Over his past 30 games, Molina is batting .352 with five homers and 17 RBIs.
On the pitching front, the Cardinals received a blow as right-hander Jake Westbrook has suffered a right oblique injury, hasn’t pitched since Sept. 8, and is likely out for the season. On the year he had gone 13-11 with a 3.97 ERA in 28 starts.
The Cardinals, however, remain pitching-rich as they have Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.77 in 32 starts), Lance Lynn (17-7, 3.69 in 28 starts) and Adam Wainwright (13-13, 4.02 ERA in 31 starts).
Now they also have the emotional lift by the return of right-hander Chris Carpenter, who on Wednesday will have made his second start of the season due to shoulder issues and surgery performed just two months ago.
Nobody but the veteran right-hander believed that he would pitch again in 2012 but here he is hopeful of showing enough that he can again become a key performer in the post-season.
“I’ve pitched in games that matter,” Carpenter, 37, said prior to his first start against the Cubs where he allowed two runs over five innings. “So I’m going out there with the same focus, the same program. Hopefully, I can help give us maybe a little push, and we can get on a little run.”
He’s more than an inspiration to his teammates.
“Obviously, Carp’s one of our leaders and an outstanding pitcher,” Holliday said. “If he’s 80%-90% of what he usually is, we’ll be in good shape.”
So will the Cards, if they make it across the line.
“There’s nothing that even needs to be said. It’s plain as the nose on your face, what we’ve got left ahead of us and what we have to do,” Matheny said this week. “It’s not like there’s a secret, there’s a formula.
“We’ve got to push. We’ve got to play our best now.”
They’ve done it in the past. Looks like they’re doing it again.
LEARNING ON THE JOB
It has been quite a heady season for rookie manager Mike Matheny.
Hired last November to replace the legendary Tony La Russa, Matheny has his Cardinals team on the verge of a post-season berth as the National League’s second wild-card team.
The former Blue Jays catcher took on the job despite the fact that he had zero managerial experience at any level. The Cardinals, though, who knew him from his days as a catcher and two seasons spent as a roving instructor had little hesitation in handing Matheny the reins.
“I believe all the experiences that I’ve learned up to this point from the field and off the field have led me to this point right now, to be what I was made to be,” Matheny said. “And as I sit here as the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, I have to tell you that this is the greatest honor of my life.”
Heading into Wednesday night’s game, Matheny has his club in a 4½-game lead over both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers.
Recently he said he has learned a lot about the rigors of the job. Topping the list is being second-guessed on a consistent basis in a city that holds baseball dear to its heart.
“People have a vested interest in this team,” Matheny said. “They’ve invested their resources to come to the games or to buy paraphernalia. They’ve invested their most valuable resource, which is their time. When you make an investment, you’re going to be emotional. And if you know the game, you’re going to have opinions in certain situations. And if your opinions don’t match up with mine and mine don’t work, you’re going to be upset.
“So your natural reaction is you’re going to really not be too happy with me. I get that. That’s part of it. But there are reasons I do what I do and my responsibility is to win baseball games and then my responsibility is to these guys in the clubhouse, to make sure I’m doing what’s right here.
“Unfortunately, outside of that, there are going to be some people not necessarily happy with some of the decisions that are made along the way.”
If the Cardinals get to pop champagne in the coming days, Matheny will only hear cheers.