A new year, a new wild-card format and the same results: The St. Louis Cardinals (88-74) have overtaken the favored Atlanta Braves (94-68) to win the National League Wild Card and advance to the NLDS.
The game was packed with storylines and controversy, most notably a questionable infield fly rule that slowed an apparent Braves rally.
But when the debris had cleared (literally), the Cardinals celebrated a victory, and Braves legend Chipper Jones appropriately ended his career stranded at his very own third base in Turner Field.
Now that the Cardinals have won a pressure-packed one-game playoff, they will once again have to play the role of October underdog. Just like last year, the Cardinals have a tough road ahead of them, starting Sunday against the NL East champions, the Washington Nationals (98-64). However, this year’s version of the Redbirds is even more equipped to win it all than last year's squad.
The Cardinals' most tangible weapon is their depth. The Cardinals are deep everywhere this year, starting with their lineup.
St. Louis’ postseason 1-6 spots in the batting order look like this: Jon Jay, Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina and David Freese. As a composite, the six are averaging around 511 at-bats with a .297 batting average, more than 21 homers, 81 RBI and a slugging percentage of .482. Those are All-Star-caliber numbers.
Other than Jay, the other five players each have at least 20 homers and 76 RBI and have shown an ability to carry the team offensively. The Cardinals still have last year’s NLCS and World Series MVP, David Freese, and they have a list of others who could be that difference-maker this year.
The Cardinals also have a nice offensive weapon coming off the bench in rookie Matt Carpenter, who amassed a .294/.365/.463 (BA/OBP/SLG) batting line in 296 at-bats in 2012. Additionally, his 11 pinch-hit RBI tied for the second-most in all of baseball this season.
All this adds up to an offense that produced three more runs than it did last year, even after losing Albert Pujols to free agency and Lance Berkman to injury for most of the season.
St. Louis’ depth can also be found on the mound.
The pitching staff came into 2012 with a lot of questions, particularly after ace Chris Carpenter was shut down, reportedly for the entire season. But Carpenter (0-2, 3.71 ERA) worked diligently and returned to join Adam Wainwright (14-13, 3.94), Jaime Garcia (7-7, 3.92) and Wild Card Game winner Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86) in the postseason rotation.
The return of Carpenter has apparently made the team’s 2012 win leader, Lance Lynn (18-7, 3.78), the odd man out of the rotation. However, should anyone struggle, Lynn could be slotted in for a start.
Adding Lynn to the bullpen also brings depth to a unit that struggled this year when the team’s starter was unable to go deep into a game.
Joining Lynn with another young, hard-throwing right-hander, Joe Kelly (5-7, 3.53), gives the Cardinals two successful starting pitchers who could be used in long-relief appearances.
Adding flamethrower Trevor Rosenthal (2.78 ERA, 9.9 K/9 in Triple-A) and his triple-digit fastball, and acquiring Edward Mujica (1.03 ERA, 26.1 IP with Cardinals) from the Marlins has shored up a weakness in bridging the sixth- and and seventh-inning gap to Mitchell Boggs (2.21 ERA, 34 holds).
The Cardinals are about as deep as any team in the playoffs, and that certainly gives them an edge. But what may give them an even bigger edge is something that first-year manager Mike Matheny noted at the press conference after Friday’s win: "They believe in each other." (via mlb.com)
This team knows it deserves to be in this spot again. The guys are hungry to win after the Albert Pujols-Tony La Russa years. And the Cards seem to thrive when it counts most, winning each of their last five series of the regular season, the final two coming against division winners, the Nationals and the Cincinnati Reds (97-65).
Despite scoring the second-most runs in the NL, the Cardinals struggled somewhat this year to drive in men in scoring position. But against the Braves Friday, the Redbirds were opportunistic despite only notching six hits. The lineup took advantage of three Atlanta errors, one in the fourth and two in the seventh, scoring a combined five runs in those innings. The Cardinals seemed much more composed than the Braves, and they took advantage of every Atlanta miscue.
The Cardinals are once again rolling in October, and (in a little déjà vu) overtaking the Braves for the Wild Card may be a sign that they’re primed for a repeat.