The start of October, all the yearly telltale signs that fall has begun are everywhere: the days are shorter and nights cooler, the high school down the street is having their homecoming bonfire, and the St. Louis Cardinals are preparing for the playoffs. Well, the later may not happen every year, but as the Cards prepare to enter their 12th season in the playoffs in the 2000s, it has come to be an autumn expectation in St. Louis. At nearly 40 games over .500 the 2015 iteration of the Cardinals boasts baseball’s best record and are the top seed in the National League. The Cardinals hit the 100 win mark for the ninth time in team history and the first since 2005, drawing more than 3.5 million fans for the fourth time.
Early season ending injuries to ace pitcher Adam Wainwright, and first-baseman Matt Adams coupled with significant injuries to veteran outfielders Matt Holliday and Jon Jay meant that four of the Cardinals nine opening day starters would miss considerable playing time during the season. This should be enough to doom most teams. Instead, the Cardinals have put together one of the best seasons in recent memory. The team played over .500 baseball every month of the season (with October still pending), and even their worst month, September, saw them winning games at a .536 clip. Their 19-6 start was the best by a St. Louis franchise since 1899, one year before the team even adopted the “Cardinals” as their name. (They were known as the St. Louis Perfectos in 1899.) In their 74th game, the Cards racked up their 50th win, making them only the 18th team since 1965 to win 50 games before losing 25.
Oh, hey there! Been a while, eh? Yeah, I still write for ReviewStl. You’re stuck with me for a while longer, I suppose. Don’t worry, I’ll be trying to write a little bit more than the zero I’ve done recently.
But you don’t want to listen to my ramblings, eh? Me neither. You want to discuss the Cardinals, and rightfully so.
What’s Gone Right with the Cardinals so far
I don’t think there’s any doubt remaining that Marp’s taken the reins as the best position player on the team this year. In this still-nascent season, Carpenter’s leading the team in average (.366 before tonight’s game), slugging (.634 thanks to a league-leading 10 doubles), home runs (3), and RBI (11).
Is it sustainable? Unlikely. Carpenter’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is 50 percentage points higher (.390) than his career average, and that’s likely to regress a bit. It doesn’t mean he won’t be more successful than he was last season. He’s taken a bit more of an aggressive approach at the plate (4.03 pitches per plate appearance this season, compared to 4.37 last year). He’s cut down on his walks, but he’s also cut down on his strikeout rate, and his isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) is so far a career-high .268. It’s still very early in the season, but there’s no reason to believe he can’t get a third consecutive All-Star nod.
The St. Louis Cardinals wrapped up their second straight National League Central title Sunday afternoon while finishing off warm-ups. After failing to close the door Saturday night, the division championship came down to the last day of the season, and for perhaps the first time ever, had St. Louis fans rooting for Johnny Cueto and the Reds against the Pittsburg Pirates. Separated by three time zones, and with Cueto picking up his twentieth win of the season, the Cards were able to secure the division without having to win Sunday’s game (a game they won anyway). This marks the ninth division title for the Cardinals since the inception of the NL Central during the 1994 realignment.
The season began with lofty expectations from both local and national pundits. Many considered the Cardinals to have a 100 win potential and easily capture the division crown. Nothing in baseball, however, seems to go as planned. The club battled an underachieving offense, inconsistent play most of the season, and injuries to key players, but finished the season strong. Taking over the Central division lead at the start of September, the Cardinals at a .654 clip (17-9) the final month to end the season 18 games over .500, with a record of 90-72.
Now, with the 162-game MLB season in the rearview mirror, the team can focus on baseball’s “second season,” which starts Friday night in Los Angeles in a rematch of last season’s NLCS. The teams may be the same, but there are several differences between this year’s and last year’s series. The Cardinals come in as the clear underdog. The Dodgers, as the higher seed, own home-field advantage and the Cardinals have not been good on the road, playing three games under .500 as the visitor. The Dodgers won three out of four games from the Cardinals in Los Angeles earlier this season, outscoring the Cards 17-4 in that series, shutting them out in two games. The Cardinals offense was at times anemic this season, finishing last in the NL in home runs (105), second to last in stolen bases (57), and tenth in runs scored (619). The 619 runs the Cardinals scored are the lowest of any playoff team and 99 less than the Dodgers scored. If the Cardinals want to advance past the NLDS, they are going to have to find a way to generate some offense against a pitching staff that features Cy Young award winners Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
I rooted hard for Peter Kozma. I really did.
The Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2007, Kozma escalated through the system based mostly on the merits of his glove, which I’ll admit was terrific last year. His bat, though, was never that great to begin with, and I think Cardinals fans were falsely given hope thanks to the small sample size of 2012 and his “what just happened” game-winning hit in the NLDS:
After putting on a post-season performance that’ll be remembered in St. Louis likely for the rest of its existence, David Freese had a terrific 2012 season, posting a .839 OPS and earning his first All-Star spot. He struggled heavily in 2013, though, posting an OPS+ barely above the league average, and he was downright abysmal in the post-season, recording more strikeouts (16) than hits (10). As a result, Cardinal management decided to give him a change of scenery, packaging him and Fernando Salas and shipping them to Anaheim for Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk.