The St. Louis Cardinals' World Series season was set into motion long before they torched likely National League Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw on Friday night. Putting up nine runs on Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 6 of the NLCS, was a signal to the rest of baseball (again): We are the Cardinals. This is what we do.
They aren't the most glamorous team. They don't have a Yasiel Puig. But the Cardinals, like the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA or the New England Patriots in NFL, go about business their way and it always seems to have them in the thick of things when the season gets heated. They won 97 games this season, spending 130 days in first place and never playing worse than .500 ball in any particular month.
In 2013, they leaned on a mixture of the names you knew — Adam Wainwright, Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig — and the ones you were about to know — Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Adams. The Cards had the surprise star, Matt Carpenter, and the MVP candidate, Yadier Molina.
Now, they're here, they've reached the World Series. It's every team's goal at the start of the season, but St. Louis is better than most at accomplishing it. This is their 19th trip. The Cards last won the Series in 2011, knocking off the Texas Rangers in a thrilling seven-game series with the clincher coming at Busch Stadium. Now they await the winner of the ALDS between the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers to see who they'll face. Game 1 is Wednesday in either Boston or Detroit.
While we wait for that to get figured out, let's take a look back at the Cardinals season, what went right for them, who stepped up and how they made it to the 2013 World Series.
Matt Carpenter emerges with historic season
Every season the Cardinals have that one player who takes his game to another level and becomes a go-to man in their lineup. In 2011, we saw it with David Freese, especially as they advanced in the postseason. Last season, Allen Craig established himself an All-Star at first base post-Albert Pujols.
In 2013, that player was Matt Carpenter. The 27-year-old infielder quietly began his ascent in 2012, but exploded this season, leading the National League in hits (199) runs (126) and doubles (55). The doubles set a new franchise record for left-handed hitters, passing Stan Musial's 53 in 1953. It was plenty good enough to merit his first All-Star selection, and though he was mostly quiet in the postseason, one determined at-bat against Clayton Kershaw gave the Cardinals their final push into the World Series. He's their always reliable engine.
Adam Wainwright re-establishes dominance
Waino is bueno (or good) is a social media term frequently used to describe Wainwright, and with good reason. Following a down 2012, the 32-year-old right-hander anchored a better-than-advertised Cardinals rotation, finishing the regular season with a 19-9 mark and a 2.94 ERA. Of course, like any good ace should, he’s elevated his game even higher in the postseason, posting a 1.57 ERA in three starts. He's just a special talent, and you can bet he's determined to win a World Series after missing out on the fun in 2011.
A balanced attack
Depth, consistency, experience, the Cardinals seem to have it all in abundance. But perhaps their most impressive asset is their balance. There’s no specific area where they’ll dominate an opponent, but there are also no weaknesses to exploit. They’re good to really good everywhere. In fact, during the regular season they finished top five in ERA, runs, hits, doubles, RBI, AVG and OBP, but weren’t No. 1 in any category. It's much easier to be relentless and/or resilient when you can rely on every unit to step up.
The Cards beat up on their division
Only the Atlanta Braves and Detroit Tigers (both 47-29) finished with a better record in their respective divisions than St. Louis (46-30). The bulk of their damage came against the Central’s bottom-feeders from Chicago and Milwaukee (26-12). The only division foe they finished with a losing record against was the Pittsburgh Pirates at 9-10, but they evened that out with a five-game victory in the NLDS round.
Rookie sensations emerge
The Cardinals reminded us once again why they’re the best organization in baseball. All of those things that don’t make the highlights shows — scouting, developing, building from within — they do on par or better than any other organization. Their dedication to those aspects really shined in 2013, and especially as the season wound down. In September, they lost All-Star Allen Craig to a season-ending foot sprain, but lost nothing in production when rookie Matt Adams took over at first base.
The final week of the season, Mike Matheny had the ability to replace veteran closer Edward Mujica, who had been very effective for them throughout the season but eventually hit a wall, because rookies Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez had shown the ability to handle late-inning situations.
Shelby Miller was a huge part of their rotation throughout the season. When he faltered at the end, another rookie, Michael Wacha, slid right into the rotation became a star in the postseason. It’s a seemingly never-ending cycle of consistency and production regardless of who they’re counting on.
And we didn’t even mention ground ball aficionado Seth Maness or lefty specialist Kevin Siegrist. They are the 6th and 7th rookies on St. Louis' postseason roster.
Carlos Beltran postseason magic continues
Beltran's postseason history has been documented, and that will continue to be a huge story now that he's going to his first World Series. He just has a knack for coming through with the big hit or big play that pushes his team to victory, and this year was no exception. In Game 1 of the NLDS, his two-run homer cemented a victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. His NLCS Game 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers was legendary, as he carried St. Louis to a 3-2 win in 13 innings with a game-saving assist and walk-off hit. Then in the clinching Game 6, he was 3 for 4 with two RBIs and another great defensive play.
October is simply his month to shine, and he rarely disappoints.
Beating the best
The Los Angeles Dodgers threw Cy Young favorite Clayton Kershaw at St. Louis four times this season, including twice in the postseason. The Cardinals emerged victorious in all four games, with Kershaw taking the loss each time. It wasn't that they dominated Kershaw each time, though they certainly had his number in their deciding Game 6 victory. They just offset the difference in starting pitching talent by limiting their own mistakes and making him work for his outs. It's all of those boring cliches rolled into one, but it worked for St. Louis.
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