After the loss of star slugger Albert Pujols to free agency over the winter, the Cardinals were seen as a team surely on the mend.
Yes, the team had just won its second World Series in its third appearance of the past decade, bettering Susan Lucci’s Emmy success ratio by a mile. And yes, the team retained its perennial Cy Young Award candidate Adam Wainwright. But still, many commentators saw the departure of ol’ No. 5 as the death knell of the Cardinals dynasty.
And they were completely wrong.
The St. Louis Cardinals have shot out of the gate this season, and despite the departure of Pujols, they haven’t missed a beat. At 16-10, they’re sitting pretty atop the NL Central. So what are the team’s keys to success? What’s in the Cardinals' secret sauce?
The kid who scored the run that saved the Series is having a heck of a year.
After crossing the plate with two outs in the bottom of the 10th in Game 6 against the Tigers last October, Jon Jay has become a man on a mission.
That mission? To be the best hitter this side of the Mississippi—and if it weren’t for the existence of a certain someone named Matt Kemp, he might have already fulfilled it.
Off to an insane start in only his second season as the Cardinals’ everyday center fielder, Jay is proving the Cardinals’ wisdom in hanging onto him through their farm system. He’s hitting .412 and has an OPS pushing 1.000—those are the kind of numbers no Cardinals outfielder has put up since Stan Musial.
That’s Stan the Man. Not Pujols el Hombre. So yes, Cardinals fans might be missing their old first baseman. But Jon Jay is doing a great job of helping them move along.
Well, that may have been true. But he also happens to be hitting again like the healthy Furcal of old.
Raf’s 33-for-100 to start the season. And with his move to the front of the lineup, he’s become a scoring threat, too: 19 runs in 25 games is quite a pace. Furcal is just plain producing at the plate, coupling his .330 average with an OBP pushing .400.
He’s not the only reason the Cards are at the top of the majors in three crucial offensive categories—runs scored, batting average and on-base percentage—but he’s certainly not holding the team back, either.
Ah, yes. David Freese. The newfound savior of St. Louis.
After three solid seasons as a platoon player in the Cardinal infield, Freese became the darling of the squad when he claimed both LCS and World Series MVP awards, sparking rallies and blasting game-savings home runs with the frequency of a Little Leaguer envisioning imagined heroics in his backyard.
This season, Freese finally has a job of his own, and he is making the most of it. Six homers, 24 RBI, and a .326 batting average to date are making this birthday boy (he turned 29 on April 28) one happy camper.
From last October on, Freese has been the driving engine behind the Cardinal offense, with more consistent and more clutch hitting than any other man in St. Louis.
Especially with big hitter Lance Berkman on the 15-day disabled list, Freese has been tasked with shouldering quite a load in this St. Louis lineup—and boy, has he responded.
Yadier Molina is a rock behind the plate, and as his career has gone on, he’s grown into a threat in the batter’s box, too. Molina’s shown steady improvement since he was called up in ’04, and he’s been with the team through all three of its recent World Series appearances.
For the fourth year out of the past five, Yadi is flirting with a .300 batting average, making him the most consistent hitting catcher in the bigs. There’s a reason this guy keeps getting invited to All-Star Games, and it’s not just his defense or the fact that his name is as fun to say as the Six Flags Scream Machine is to ride.
Molina may flat-out be the best catcher in the National League—and the St. Louis Cardinals are lucky to have him.
Holy signing bonus, Batman! Exhibiting the kind of flash with the stick he hasn’t shown since George W. Bush was president, offseason free-agent acquisition Carlos Beltran is finally earning his $13 million.
Injury-free at last, Beltran is back to form and punching the clock in St. Louis. He leads the team in homers, having just turned in a two-HR, seven-RBI performance as the Cardinals shellacked Pittsburgh earlier in the week.
With quality production like that, who needs Prince Albert in a can?
Erstwhile ace Adam Wainwright is off to a slow start this year. Luckily, the team hasn’t missed a beat, and that’s partly because Jaime Garcia has done such a great job picking up the slack.
This 25-year-old lefty is quickly growing into the role of a staff ace. He’s currently posting a 2.78 ERA and has given up no HRs all year over his five starts. With a 28-16 win-loss record over the last three seasons, Garcia’s undoubtedly a star on the rise.
This career-.500 pitcher is off to the best start of his career. His 2.12 ERA is a new best for Jake Westbrook, a 13-year veteran of the league. Maybe that new Busch Stadium has something to do with it—is it something in the water?
Sure, it’s possible that Westbrook’s pace will drop off as the rigors of season (to say nothing of the creaks and ravages of age) take their toll. But for now, Westbrook is doing everything the team could possibly ask of him. And that’s showing up in the standings.
Being a Cardinal has been good to Kyle Lohse. A 12-year MLB veteran, his five years with the Cards have been among the best of his career. With a high-water mark 15-win season in his first with the squad, he’s currently 4-0 with a 1.62 ERA, putting him on pace for a Cy Young-caliber season.
Never a power pitcher, Lohse’s strikeout totals are up, too. That’s got to be a nice surprise for new Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. Lohse’s measly WHIP is also great: 0.84 walks plus hits per inning pitched puts Lohse among the best in the bigs, just behind...
What a story. Last year, Lance Lynn was a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, just a few hours west along I-70 removed from his home in Marion County, Indiana. He pitched very well from the bullpen, mustering a 3.12 ERA over 18 games in helping the Cards to their postseason push. But there’s no way anyone could have predicted what would happen next.
Over the offseason, Lynn was promoted to starter, and my, how the sunshine has made this kid blossom. A 5-0 win-loss record, a 1.60 ERA and a 0.77 WHIP are totals that put him among the top-five pitchers in the majors.
Yes, Lynn is ceding up homers a little too frequently, but with just six total runs given up in five starts so far, shouldn’t he get a pass, at least for now?
Whatever they taught this kid last year in the Cardinal bullpen, it was right on. Which brings us to the Cardinals’ final 2012 key to victory...
Billy Bob gettin' it done.
A middle reliever is the red-headed stepchild of almost any baseball organization. Most times, middle relievers are middle relievers because they’ve either not got the stamina to last six innings or more, or they’ve not got the stuff —be it physical or mental—to enter the game at the end and close.
That means that most middle relievers are the washrags of the pitching corps: they’re used to mop up messes, but no one really wants to get their hands dirty with them.
But this year’s Cardinals bullpen is something different.
The middle relievers on this 2012 Cardinals team have been, in a word, outstanding. Mitchell Boggs, Marc Rzepczynski, Victor Marte, J.C. Romero and Kyle McClellan have all been playing great baseball. With a combined ERA of 2.45 in 47 and two-thirds innings of work, this quintet appears to be the best core middle relief squad in the bigs.
Yes, the last two guys in the pen—Kyle McClellan and Fernando Salas—are struggling some. But as Billy Bob Thornton, above, quipped in Bad Santa, “They can’t all be winners, kid.”
It’s just that on this year’s Cardinals squad, almost all of them are.