The Cardinals were not a good team. They were a mediocre team, a team playing like it was stuck in the ooze of the Mississippi River. It was a team that entered 100 scheduled days of baseball with a record under .500, precisely at .500, or no better than three games above even.
This would change.
The starting rotation was broken, the bullpen was ablaze, and the front office did nothing to fix it, or save it, or salvage the season. The Cardinals were riding a downbound train.
This would change.
The Cardinals were not an entertaining team, frequently rendered inert with a tedious offense that lacked power and imagination and men on base.
This would change.
The Cardinals had likeable players, yes. But they were not a likeable team — not in the way that we warm to teams because of how they energize us, lift us, inspire us, and provide us with an enchanting escape from the daily worries and drudgery. As we tried to emerge from a pandemic, the Cardinals did not give us the motivation to hurry down to the ballpark.
This would change.
The manager sincerely expressed pride in the way his boys scratched and clawed, even as they rarely scratched or clawed, or were the exact opposite of a team that scratched and clawed. And besides, when we look at the MLB standings, there are no columns for scratching and clawing — just wins and losses. And for all the jejune tributes to their valor, the Cardinals could not be taken seriously. They lost too many games, too squandered too many opportunities, and burned too many dates on the schedule.
This would change.
First place was out of reach — the Milwaukee Brewers had used the Cardinals and other division rivals as a staircase to the top of the NL Central — but the wild-card was still there. The second wild card at that. But the Cardinals couldn’t really see it. The Padres and Reds and others were in the way — and how can you reach for a lotto-ball ticket when it’s almost closing time, and you are at the back of the line? The Cardinals had a chance, at least. Maybe only 2.8 percent. But hey, they had a shot. Even if no one really believed in them.
This would change.
The Cardinals put together a little winning streak, but we were onto them now. It was just a tease, a trick and couldn’t last. Just like their previous little surges that quickly faded out. What, do you expect these guys to win 17 games in a row or something? Really? You’re cuckoo. You’re the Looney Tunes theme song. Get outta here.
This would change, too.
So much would change.
Like, just about everything.
Including Busch Stadium, which was filled with happy people and happy energy and happy smiles again.
And all of the changes led to a very cheery Tuesday night at the ballpark, with the Cardinals defeating the Brewers 6-2 to clinch the second NL wild-card spot. The jubilation and celebration were a long time coming for a team that needed 157 games to secure a place in the 2021 postseason. At times it seemed like 257 games.
This wasn’t easy. It was more of an ordeal. But the Cardinals got through it. The injuries, the roster holes, the cruddy baseball, the frustration, the long odds. They made it through the maze.
Adam Wainwright notched his 17th win of the season to snap the Cardinals onto the postseason board. As the pitcher and teammates and families and friends savored the moment, Waino spoke of perseverance.
“We had to overcome probably the worst baseball I’ve ever seen a Cardinals team play,” he told the media. “We just weren’t doing anything right. We were finding ways to lose games. We’d have the lead late, blow it. We’ve had the lead early, blow it. We’d have good pitching, not score. We have good pitching and good hitting, but not play good defense.
“It was something that was wrong every day, and it was understanding that we’re a better team than what we were showing. We can go out there and compete with anybody when we play right, and that’s what we did.”
It was gradual. A step-by-step process of making additions and changes.
1) The bullpen emergency was handled in July by the front office reaching for the astute bargain-rate pickups of relievers Luis Garcia and T.J. McFarland. Garcia signed on July 9. McFarland made his first appearance on July 16. The result: since the All-Star break the Cardinals are 44-23 and rank seventh in the majors with a 3.48 bullpen ERA. Equipped with an expanded number of quality relievers, manager Mike Shildt reshuffled the bullpen for maximum effect.
2) The trade deadline left Cardinals fans and media yawning, with president of baseball ops John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch making trades for starting-pitching remnants Jon Lester and A.J. Happ. They arrived with a combined 5.90 ERA in 35 starts. I made fun of the trades, and so did you. (Don’t fib!)
Well, Lester and Happ have regenerated in St. Louis after implementing advice from catcher Yadier Molina, Wainwright and pitching coach Mike Maddux. The Cardinals are 13-5 in starts made by Lester and Happ since Aug. 14. The Cards clearly have benefited from the experience and savvy of three starting pitchers — Wainwright, Lester and Happ — who have a combined 516 career regular-season wins in 47 seasons of big-league pitching. St. Louis ranks fifth in the majors with a 3.65 rotation ERA since Lester and Happ got acclimated and began rolling on Aug. 14.
3) The boring offense went nuclear. After averaging 4.1 runs per game from the start of the season through the end of August, the Cardinals lead the NL in runs per game (5.7) this month.
After averaging only 28.4 homers per month and slugging .395 from the beginning of the season through August, the Cardinals already have launched 50 home runs in September and lead the NL with a .496 slugging percentage this month.
After Shildt slotted Tyler O’Neill in the No. 3 spot between Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado on Aug. 27, the Cardinals lead the majors in runs, are tied for second in homers and OPS, and lead the NL in batting average and slugging. O’Neill has peaked in September, putting up numbers that the STL front office dreamed off when they acquired the developing young slugger in 2017. O’Neill has been the team’s most potent bat this month, hitting .317 with six doubles, 11 homers, four stolen bases, 27 RBI, 27 runs and a 1.061 OPS. And the bottom half of the lineup was ignited by Shildt’s decision to install Edmundo Sosa at shortstop, and the explosion of offense by Harrison Bader. Harry has gone off this month for a .354 average, 1.032 OPS, 10 doubles, six homers, 16 runs, and 18 RBI. And his baserunning? Electric.
4) Paul Goldschmidt was truly golden down the stretch. He deserves league MVP consideration, but likely will be overlooked, and that’s a shame. In his first season in St. Louis, Nolan Arenado found what he was looking for. A happy new relationship will only grow stronger. The first baseman and the third baseman were touchstones. So much of this team’s regular-season fate depended on them, and they were ready to seize the chance to compete in the postseason for the first time as teammates. With only five games to go in the regular season, the corner men have combined for 65 homers, 69 doubles, 203 RBI and 181 runs this year. And in the September crucible, they’ve teamed up for 17 homers, 40 RBI and 48 runs.
Shildt’s work has made a difference. With the bullpen, with the lineup, and with his deep-rooted prioritization of defense and baserunning. The range, the fielding and the intelligent navigation of the basebaths have been astral all season — and simply out of this world over the final weeks of the regular season.
The “We Believed In Ourselves” narrative has predictably been scooped up and used as an album cover to catch our attention. But it’s always about the music. That’s what makes an album great. I;m not saying the Cardinals didn’t believe in each other, or that Shildt was wrong to insist that he believed in his team all along. The man is unrelenting in his optimism, and it comes from a genuine place in his heart.
And absolutely, the Cardinals kept working to make things right. But a big reason for the late dash into the postseason are the additions and the changes. It all added up. And a dormant offense that always had the potential finally broke through with the season on the line. We would have liked to see that happen earlier, but the late timing made for excitement and drama.
The Cardinals were able to transform average areas (the offense), damaged areas (the rotation) and a toxic area (the bullpen.)
And it’s true: the players never gave up.
Then again — and let’s be honest here — why WOULD they give up?
Along the way, no one even remotely suggested that these guys were quitters. They aren’t wired that way, and there was no reason to pack it in. The Padres, Reds and Mets were freefalling. The Phillies are a game over .500 this month.
The Cardinals just needed to play better ball, and win. Period. This wild-card race was waiting for the Cardinals to rush in and take it. The Cards got all aspects of their game peaking at the same time, and the result was powerful. And amazing. Seventeen in a row? And 19-1 in the last 20? That’s something else.
The strongest words I’ve heard about the Redbird rally to the second wild-card spot — 17 straight wins, 19-1 in the last 20, and a 21-6 bull run in September — came from a rival, Cubs manager David Ross. As the Cubs rebuild, their manager will cite the Cardinals as an example of how to navigate a season.
“I’ll be using that as an example, for sure,” Ross said of the Cardinals, after his Cubs were swept by STL in the four-game series at Wrigley Field last weekend. “They went into the season knowing what they had and they said we’re going to succeed or fail with this team and we’re going to ride it out. Not a lot of action at the trade deadline, (filled) a couple small holes with bargain deals for veteran pitchers who throw strikes. Readjusted their bullpen and found out where their strengths and weaknesses are. The right guys got hot, the offense woke up, they changed some pieces.”
“They believed in the group that they had and stuck with them the full season,” Ross said. “I think that’s a nice lesson for me. OK, it’s 162, it’s not the All-Star break, it’s not the trade deadline, it’s not into September. It’s the entire season.”
The Cardinals may get shoved out of the postseason by the Dodgers or Giants in next week’s wild-card game. But that won’t erase what they’ve done this month in making one of the greatest and most historic comebacks in franchise history. The 1964 and 2011 Cardinals will always be revered for their late-season heroics. Those Cardinal Classics refused to stay down, refused to be knocked out, and kept pushing until teams in front of them fell and surrendered. Andin 2021, this franchise-setting winning streak won’t be forgotten.
The 2021 Cardinals have charged down a similar passageway, and there’s no telling where it will lead. But the Cards have captured a playoff spot, one that looked so far out of range. And in doing so, they captured our hearts — hearts that were always in close range but waiting for the Cardinals to meet us at the place where special and lasting memories are made. Whatever happens next week, this team renewed our love.
Thanks for reading.
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 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. 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.