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.
St. Louis has had a bit of a revolving door when it comes to the middle of the infield. Second base has been the worst overall culprit. How bad? The last player to start more than two seasons in a row as the opening day second baseman was Fernando Vina, whose final season with the Cardinals was in 2003.
Since then, the Cardinals’ Opening Day starters at second base have been:
2004 – Tony Womack
2005 – Mark Grudzielanek
2006 – Aaron Miles
2007 – Adam Kennedy
2008 – Adam Kennedy
2009 – Brendan Ryan
2010 – Skip Schumaker
2011 – Skip Schumaker
2012 – Daniel Descalso
2013 – Daniel Descalso
Not exactly a beacon of awesome or consistency.
Cardinals fans were lucky enough to witness one of the greatest hitters in history manning first from 2004-2011. When he moved on, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect at least a bit of a drop in production, but thankfully, Allen Craig has stepped up huge the last two seasons, even earning an All-Star nod last season.
This year, though, it’s pretty easy to project yet another starter at first base, as the the departure of Carlos Beltran coupled with the season-ending injury suffered by super-prospect Oscar Taveras has left an opening in right field, where it’s likely Allen Craig will move.