As we count down the hours until Christmas Eve, I was in the mood to write something upbeat and cheerful.

Earlier this week I was thinking about the 2022 Cardinals, and what if anything the front office plans to do after the lockout. Will John Mozeliak, Michael Girsch and Bill DeWitt Jr. augment the roster? If so, are we looking at the usual nip and tuck – the careful and cautious and conservative 90-win calibration – or a bold move that makes this the best team in the NL Central?

To look ahead, you first must look back to assess the pluses and the minuses of the 2021 roster. In doing that, I couldn’t help think about some of the fun stories, admirable performances, and unexpected developments. The happy surprises. The emergence of important talent. And just some of the best moments that lifted the Cardinals out of mediocrity and into a wild-card playoff spot. The team won 90 games and made the postseason for the third year in a row – but didn’t have enough to get past the Dodgers in the NL wild-card game. That’s where the good times stalled to a halt.

Without sounding like a guy doing “Sound of Music” karaoke, here are a few of my favorite things from the Cardinals’ 2021 season ….

1. The Streak: The stunning 17-game winning spree began on Sept. 11 with a 6-4 win over the Reds at Busch Stadium. It lasted until Sept. 28 with a 6-2 victory over the Brewers at Busch. When the Cardinals began this wildest adventure ride, they had the NL’s seventh best record (71-69.) In the race for the No. 2 wild card ticket, the Cards trailed the Padres by 3.5 games, and the Reds by 3 games. By the time the 17-game stretch of delirium was over, the Cardinals had the fourth-best record (88-69) and were in complete command of the No. 2 wild card – leading the Reds by 6.5, the Phillies by 7, and the Padres by 10.

In winning a team-record 17 straight the Cardinals outscored opponents 115 to 53. St. Louis pitchers twirled to a 2.92 ERA. The offense smashed 37 doubles, 34 homers, slugged .540, batted .354 with runners in scoring position and averaged 6.8 runs per game.

We laughed in near disbelief as the Cardinals’ fielders pulled off zany rundown plays, the hitters delivered timely hits that turned our worries into sudden joy. Their runners set off on mad dashes and took daring gambles to carry runs to home plate. They kicked out the jams (shout-out to MC5) and kicked up the dirt.

This team had so much fun, and the exhilaration was shared and felt by those watching at home, or standing and applauding at the ballpark. It was just wonderful. And wild. I doubt that we’ll have the pleasure of seeing something like this from a Cardinal team for many years – if ever. So it’s important to savor the memories.

2. The Mastery, the Might and the Magic of Adam Wainwright: I’ll hold onto a few things in particular. One, the way he held this team together as the rotation collapsed around him. From the start June 3 until Sept. 3, Waino had a 2.24 ERA and the Cardinals won 13 of his 17 starts. How valuable was Wainwright? The Cardinals had a 27-36 record in games started by other pitchers from June 3 through Sept. 3. Second, it was just how he defied the lowered expectations that come with advancing athletic age. Wainwright not only spun his way to one of the best seasons of his stellar career (17-7, 3.05 ERA), but he pitched better as the season went on. Approaching his 40th birthday – and passing it – he had a 2.54 ERA after the All-Star break. That’s notable because of his first-half 3.58 ERA. Third, there is something about Wainwright standing on the mound at Busch Stadium that brings out the best in him – and us. He did it again, pitching to a 2.74 ERA at home, with the Cardinals winning 13 of his 19 starts at Busch. His starts at home became a celebration of Wainwright, his incredible relationship with adoring fans, and his unique, historically prominent partnership with catcher Yadier Molina. You just don’t get a chance to see late-career legends still thriving in their 17th consecutive season as teammates.

3. Tyler O’Neill. The Big Man Breaks Out: After several false starts in his early career, the patience with O’Neill paid off in a huge return. He had to deal with relatively minor injuries along the way, and struggled through an extensive July slump. But by the end of the campaign Bro’Neill had amassed 537 plate appearances – and he loaded them up with all-purpose production: 34 homers, 28 doubles-triples, a .560 slugging percentage, 80 RBI, 89 runs, 15 steals bases, and a second consecutive Gold Glove defensive performance in left field. Using the Baseball Reference version of Wins Above Replacement, O’Neill ranked second among all MLB regular outfielders with his 6.3 WAR; only Juan Soto (7.1) had more. In 2021 O’Neill emerged as one of the most exciting and entertaining talents in the game. And he’s still only 26.

4) Nolan Arenado. The Beginning Of a Beautiful Relationship: Cardinals fans loved him from the start, and his dramatic game-winning home run in the 2021 home opener sealed it with a kiss. Arenado won a Gold Glove. He won a Platinum Glove. He clubbed 34 homers. He doubled 34 times. He drove in 105 runs. He brought the kind of intensity to the field that I hadn’t seen since the halcyon STL days of Albert Pujols. Here’s the thing: the transition to Busch Stadium wasn’t easy for ‘Nado. Not because he was moving here from Coors Field in Denver. Arenado never needed Coors to artificially inflate numbers. In 2021 Arenado homered 20 times and slugged .549 when away from Busch Stadium. But his fly-ball hitting style wasn’t a smooth fit in a home ballpark that suppresses right-handed air power, and Arenado had a .435 slug and 14 homers at home. There was no whining, no pouting. He just kept playing – competing all out to help the Cardinals win by any means necessary. What a gamer.

5) The Daily Excellence Of Paul Goldschmidt: Oh, sure, he produced many highlight moments … big moments. But Goldy has never been a flashy player. He’s allergic to self promotion, doesn’t seem to care about becoming a social-media star, and has a baseball personality that seemingly has been transported from the 1950s. And that’s EXACTLY why he’s so appealing to fans – like me – who don’t need a player to be a shameless show pony in an attempt to increase his popularity. Goldschmidt doesn’t play to the crowd, or the TV camera. He JUST PLAYS BALL. And he plays very, very well in all phases. There is pride, persistence and professionalism in his approach. He takes care of business. He’s a great teammate. He wants to stand by how work. Goldy had his best season as a Cardinal, hitting 31 homers and 36 doubles, knocking in 99 runs, scoring 102, slugging .514 and producing a supply of offense that rated 43 percent above the league average. And after a hard-luck start he performed 62 percent over the league average offensively over the final four months. And that 17-game winning streak? Goldschmidt led the way by batting .391 with a .474 OBP and .844 slug during the Cards’ epic run. From Sept. 11 through Sept. 28, he performed 139 percent above league average offensively. And he’s a superb presence defensively at first base. These gifts led to a sixth-place finish in league MVP voting, and another Gold Glove. Goldy is excellence without personal excess. You know who would have loved watching Paul Goldschmidt in 2021? Stan Musial.

6. Jon Lester, From Enemy To Friend: I don’t need to pelt you with statistics here. After all of the years watching Lester torment and subdue the Cardinals as a starter for the Red Sox and the Cubs – and disliking him in that hate-your-rival way – it was a hoot to see him in Cardinal uniform, bringing that nasty demeanor to the mound. And he came through for the Redbirds. His ERA over 12 starts (4.36) wasn’t anything special. But as the Cardinals started to make their move in the sprint to a playoff spot, the salty Lester turned in a terrific nine-start stretch. Backed by Lester’s 3.02 ERA, the Cardinals won seven of the nine starts. Cardinals fans were ready to hug him. Strange but true! Hat tip to Lester, J.A. Happ and Wade LeBlanc for their role in saving the rotation – and the season.

7) Watching Dylan Carlson Grow: The young outfielder (age 23) had a good rookie season – and if anything, his all-around performance was overlooked a bit. But he was durable (149 games), and improved after hitting the rookie wall in early July. After the All-Star break Carlson batted .277, slugged .505, hit 11 homers and 15 doubles, and drove in as many runs (34) as he scored. Overall, Carlson had a season that put him at 13 percent above league average offensively, and it was even better (+27 percent) after the All-Star break. And there was nothing wrong with his full-season numbers except his difficulty against righthanded pitching. But that won’t last; the best is yet to come. Watch out in 2022.

7) Harrison Bader, Tommy Edman, Edmundo Sosa. Why am I grouping them together? Because of the way they play. Speed, hustle, running hard, playing hard, throwing their bodies around, and providing outstanding defense. All three made valuable if imperfect contributions offensively. Edman with the stolen bases and the doubles and the Gold Glove. Bader with the overdue Gold Glove, and career highs in homers, slugging, doubles and OPS. Sosa with the above–average offense, speed, and eight defensive runs saved. We can look at all three and say: “I wish he could do this better, or that better.” That’s OK. It’s fair. But let us remember to appreciate the things they did to make the Cardinals a playoff team.

9. Yadier Molina. All Things Yadier Molina. Need I say more” With Molina set to retire and close a Hall of Fame career, It’s going to be a sentimental, emotional 2022.

10) Alex Reyes: You Can Call It a Comeback: I was just really happy to see him finally get past the injuries and tough breaks and let his talent go and flow. He was a scary-dominant for much of the season, and wore down after being pitched too often – used gratuitously at times – but the late-season disappointment shouldn’t erase the positive return. Before last season, many of us wondered if Reyes would ever be healthy enough to pitch in a valuable, sustained role. Answer: Yes. He made it back. And gave the Cardinals a boost. That’s the most important thing.

Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays …

–Bernie

 

 

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.