Monday September 29th, 2014

SI.com is previewing all 10 playoff teams as they begin their chase for a World Series title. You can find each team's individual capsule here.

Regular-Season Record/Finish: 90-72, first in NL Central

How They Got Here: The defending National League champions spent most of 2014 underachieving before getting hot just in time to take advantage of the Brewers' collapse and stay one step ahead of the similarly surging Pirates to win the NL Central. The Cardinals didn't spend a single day in first place by themselves until Sept. 1, and they went 17-9 in the season's final month — including an 8-2 record against Milwaukee and Pittsburgh — to take the division.

That's not to say that St. Louis was a bad team before September. In fact, it entered the month 10 games over .500. That included going 43-37 in June, July and August, during which time the Cardinals were outscored by their opponents. Thus, while they were underperforming relative to expectations for most of the summer, they were overachieving relative to their actual on-field performance.

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Why They'll Win: As a team, St. Louis allowed fewer than three runs per game in September, and despite injuries to Jaime Garcia — whose season ended in late June because of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome — and Michael Wacha, starting pitching has been their strength all season.

Leading that charge has been Adam Wainwright, who went 20-9 with a 2.38 ERA. He will start Game 1 of the Division Series against the Dodgers having allowed just two runs in 33 innings over his last four starts (4-0, 0.55 ERA), two of which were complete games, one a shutout. With Wacha sidelined for most of the second half with a stress fracture in his shoulder, Lance Lynn emerged as a strong No. 2 starter, going 7-4 with a 2.11 ERA in 19 outings since the beginning of June. Sophomore Shelby Miller also finished the season well, posting a 1.69 ERA over his final six starts. John Lackey was a disappointment after being acquired in the deal that sent Joe Kelly to Boston, but he has an excellent October track record. Lackey has a 3.14 ERA in 16 postseason starts, including a 2.88 mark for the Red Sox last year, which he capped with a World Series-clinching win over the Cardinals.

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Why They Won't: Since the start of June, the Redbirds have scored just 3.8 runs per game, a rate they matched exactly in September. Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter have both seen their numbers decline from last year and finished the regular season cold. The same is true for Yadier Molina, who has hit just .267/.309/.317 since returning from thumb surgery at the end of August. Rookies Kolten Wong and Oscar Taveras have failed to deliver on their promise at the plate, with the latter not even guaranteed a postseason roster spot. Even Jhonny Peralta, who was the team's most valuable regular for most of the season, cooled off in September, hitting .222/.290/.367.

Last October, St. Louis' three most productive hitters were Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig and Shane Robinson. None of them are around this year. Beltran and Craig will be watching the playoffs on television as members of the Yankees and Red Sox, respectively, and Robinson is out for the season following shoulder surgery.

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The Cardinals' lack of production is a bad sign heading into a best-of-five series against a team that can start Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in three of those five games. Kershaw will match up against Wainwright, which is great news for baseball fans in general, but bad news for St. Louis, as it means Los Angeles can effectively negate the Cardinals' best asset. The Redbirds also finished below .500 away from Busch Stadium, and the only way they would get home field advantage this October is if they face the Wild-Card Game winner in the NLCS.

According to run differential, the Cardinals were an 83-win team this year. According to third-order wins, which uses the elements of run scoring (hits, walks, etc.) to determine how many runs a team should have scored and then calculates expected wins, they were an 84-win team. That makes them, effectively, the weakest entrant in the NL field despite the fact that they had an actual record two wins better than those of the Pirates and Giants.

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