Ten reasons Cardinals are returning to postseason
After early adversity, players stepped up when opportunity arose
ST. LOUIS -- The silver lining on the Cardinals' defeat in the 2012 National League Championship Series was that a team that had just fallen one win short of the World Series would return almost all of its key players. This appeared to be a club set up for long-term success.
A mostly quiet offseason followed, before injuries foiled many of those seemingly well-laid plans.
Starter Chris Carpenter went down first, halting his throwing program in early February due to recurring symptoms from thoracic outlet syndrome. Shortstop Rafael Furcal was lost to a season-ending elbow injury weeks later. Closer Jason Motte would be, too, before Spring Training ended.
But with that early adversity came opportunity for others, and the Cardinals watched several players step up to fill voids. Unexpected emergences, record-setting seasons and an expectation for excellence in many ways defined the Cardinals' 2013 season. Here is a look at 10 things, in no particular order, that went right as the Cardinals clinched their third straight postseason berth (all stats through games of Sept. 22):
The Cardinals' offense made up for its collective power drought by being at its best with runners on base. As a team, the Cardinals were hitting .329 with runners in scoring position through 156 games. For context, no team in the last 40 years had a season average better than .311 in such spots. No one was better in the clutch than Allen Craig, whose .454 average trailed only George Brett (.469 in 1980) and Tony Gwynn (.459 in 1997) for best single-season average (minimum 100 plate appearances) with runners in scoring position. Matt Carpenter (.405), Matt Holliday (.390), Carlos Beltran (.374) and Yadier Molina (.358) also had RISP batting averages in the league's top six.
In his second year back from Tommy John surgery, Wainwright elevated himself back to staff ace. He was the NL's first pitcher to win 10 games and was one of six Cardinals to earn All-Star Game invites. Shortly after signing a five-year, $97.5 million extension, Wainwright opened his season with 34 2/3 innings without issuing a walk. He's about to set a new career high in innings pitched and has already shot up to second on the franchise's all-time strikeout list with 209 more (through 32 starts) this season to give him 1,117 (Bob Gibson is first with 3,117). His five complete games and two shutouts are both league bests.
Matt Carpenter's emergence
Carpenter parlayed a winter of work at second base to a place in the Cardinals' Opening Day lineup. Six months later, he found his name floating as an MVP candidate. Carpenter thrived at his new defensive position and stepped into the Cardinals' leadoff spot when other options didn't pan out. Carpenter, who is having one of the best offensive years by a second baseman in franchise history, entered the season's final week leading the NL in hits (196), multi-hit games (63), runs scored (123) and doubles (54). He had more extra-base hits (62) and RBIs (68) from the leadoff spot than anyone else in baseball. He is also zeroing in on becoming the first Cardinal since Albert Pujols in 2003 to have a 200-hit season.
Kelly, the stopper
The Cardinals turned several directions when injuries unplugged Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook from the starting rotation. Rookies Michael Wacha, Tyler Lyons and John Gast each made starts, but it would be Joe Kelly who, when given his chance, thrived. After being used sparingly as a long reliever during the first half of the season, Kelly was the Cardinals' best starter during an otherwise rocky July and August. He won 10 of his first 11 starts after becoming a permanent rotation member and helped halt the Cardinals' three longest losing streaks of the second half.
For the first time in more than 40 years, the Cardinals called upon 20 rookies to contribute this season. Heading into the final week of the regular season, the group had combined for a Major League-most 34 wins, including 14 by starter Shelby Miller. Michael Wacha was a key part of the Cardinals' September rotation, and Matt Adams excelled as a pinch-hitter in his first full big-league season. In the 'pen, Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist filled key holes when Motte, Mitchell Boggs and Marc Rzepczynski were lost due to injury or ineffectiveness. Maness was the go-to pitcher when the Cardinals need a double play; Siegrist was nearly unhittable against left-handed batters and set a franchise record when he opened his career with 12 scoreless appearances.
Contributing to the success of all the young Cardinals pitchers this year was Yadier Molina, the constant behind the plate. They adhered to the "Follow Yadi" mantra in order to navigate through pitch selection. He has thrown out a Major League-high 44 percent of attempted basestealers and remains the best at blocking pitches. Molina has matured into an elite hitter, too, which will make him a strong MVP candidate. Molina set a franchise record for most doubles (41) by a Cardinals catcher and is closing in on his third straight season with a batting average above .300.
The Cardinals' bullpen plans were scrambled before the season ever started when Motte went down late in Spring Training with an elbow injury. He'd eventually have season-ending Tommy John surgery. Boggs had the first chance as fill-in closer, but he blew two out of his first four saves and was demoted to the Minors just a month into the season. Edward Mujica got the next crack at closing and immediately excelled. He converted his first 21 save opportunities and has walked just five in 64 innings. In front of him, rookie Trevor Rosenthal was a dominant setup man. He has already set a franchise high for strikeouts (103) by a pitcher used solely in relief. With Mujica stumbling late in the year, Rosenthal is one of the candidates to take over in the ninth.
Formidable first basemen
Pujols may be gone, but the Cardinals continue to get exceptional production at first base. Craig settled in as a cleanup hitter and hit .454 with runners in scoring position. He was on pace to surpass the 100-RBI mark in early September before a foot sprain cost him most of the month. While Craig's absence was felt in the lineup, the Cardinals were fortunate to have a fill-in (Matt Adams) who could slide right into the middle of the order. In his first 18 games after Craig's injury, Adams hit .318 with seven homers and 14 RBIs.
Heading into the team's final homestand, the Cardinals boasted a .640 winning percentage at Busch Stadium. They are two wins away from having the third 50-win season since the ballpark opened and can challenge the record 52 home wins set in 2010. The Cardinals, who are on pace to top 3.4 million in home attendance, have had winning records in seven of their 10 homestands. The club has been its best at home recently, too, winning 13 of the last 17 games played in St. Louis.
The big innings
Though this Cardinals' offense went collectively cold for stretches, its propensity for big innings made it as dangerous a unit as any in the league. The Cardinals -- propelled by their success hitting with runners on base -- scored at least four runs in an inning 45 different times. In fourteen of those instances, the Cardinals plated six or more runs in a frame. No Major League team had a higher such total. Those big innings led to large game outputs, which explains why the Cardinals lead the Majors with 19 10-run games this year.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.