Cardinals’ ‘next man up’ strategy helped them capture their third straight NL Central title

By Jon Tayler
September 30, 2015

It’s not often that a 100-win team staggers into the playoffs. That’s how it feels, however, for the Cardinals. St. Louis beat the Pirates 11–1 in the second game of a doubleheader on Wednesday night to clinch the National League Central title and a 100-win season, but will head into October seemingly bleeding from a hundred different wounds. But in a season that has seen St. Louis lose player after player to injury, the Cardinals have somehow hung on, picking up a third straight division title that is as much a testament to the organization’s incredible depth as it is to the team’s talent.

Though St. Louis blew its first chance at clinching the division on Wednesday, losing the first game of the doubleheader by an 8–2 score, the team took care of business early in the nightcap. The Cardinals put two runs on Pittsburgh’s Charlie Morton then blew the game open in the third on a grand slam by Jason Heyward, tacking on five more runs over the final six frames to take the 11–1 win. The victory, the Cardinals’ 100th of the season, makes them the first team to reach the century mark since the 2011 Phillies and the first St. Louis squad to hit 100 wins since the ’05 team that went 100–62. The franchise record of 106 (set in 1942) remains out of reach, but with three games against the hapless Braves left to go in the season, the Cardinals could finish with more wins than all but four teams in St. Louis history.

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That the Cardinals reached the playoffs or 100 wins should come as no surprise: The team went 15–6 in April and was up in the division by as many as nine games in late June. Since hitting that high-water mark, however, St. Louis has had to fend off a charge by the Pirates, who got to within 2 1/2 games of first by the All-Star break and then again in mid-September. This last month hasn’t been an easy one for the Cardinals, either; their 15–13 record since Sept. 1 amounts to a .536 winning percentage, the team’s lowest monthly mark this season.

Of course, you can afford a slightly-better-than-.500 month when you get off to the kind of start that the Cardinals did, and any winning record is nothing to sneeze at in a division featuring the second- and third-best teams in the NL in the Pirates and Cubs, respectively. That’s especially true given that the Cardinals have been robbed of key contributors at an alarming pace. St. Louis lost ace Adam Wainwright in April to a torn left Achilles tendon, saw rightfielder Matt Holliday and first baseman Matt Adams each miss significant chunks of the season with quad injuries and has burned through seemingly every outfielder in its system. September has been even tougher on the injury front, with Yadier Molina, Carlos Martinez and Stephen Piscotty all going down within the last two weeks. Piscotty (concussion) and Molina (thumb) may return for the playoffs, but Martinez won’t be on a mound again until spring training due to a shoulder strain that knocked him out of his most recent start on Sept. 25.

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But despite all those injuries, St. Louis continues on, looking for all the world like baseball’s version of the Hydra: Cut one Cardinal down, and three more take his place, all somehow just as productive. When Holliday got hurt, the team plugged in Randal Grichuk, who has responded by posting a 136 OPS+ and playing above-average defense. When Adams was forced to the disabled list, the Cardinals turned to veteran retread Mark Reynolds, who has been satisfyingly average with the bat, then added Brandon Moss in August. Injuries to Grichuk and regular centerfielder Jon Jay led to the call-ups of Piscotty and Tommy Pham, each of whom has kept his head above water; Piscotty had a 132 OPS+ in 252 plate appearances before the outfield collision that may have put a premature end to his season, and Pham has a 126 OPS+ in 163 PA. In the rotation, Wainwright’s loss was barely felt, as Martinez, Michael Wacha, John Lackey, Lance Lynn and Jaime Garcia all posted ERA+ figures of 126 or better; for comparison, that’s a better mark than Chris Archer, Corey Kluber and Johnny Cueto.

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While that rotation has been stellar, the loss of Martinez will be acutely felt. He led the team in strikeouts (184) and strikeout-per-nine rate (9.2) and was third in ERA+ behind Garcia and Lackey. Worse, his injury comes with Wacha noticeably wearing down. Since the start of the month, the 23-year-old righty has thrown 24 innings and allowed 21 earned runs and seven homers, walking 18 against just 19 strikeouts. In the first game of Wednesday’s doubleheader, he was rocked for six runs in four innings, including a grand slam by Francisco Cervelli. While his velocity remains strong—he averaged 95.9 mph with his fastball on Wednesday and topped out at 98.2—his control has vanished as he has hit new heights in innings pitched. His 181 1/3 innings this season is a career high, surpassing the 180 1/3 he threw in 2013 (including the playoffs).

It’s fitting, then, that with Martinez out and Wacha struggling, it should be Wainwright who arrives in just the nick of time. Originally expected to miss nine to 12 months, Wainwright has returned in just five, as he was activated off the DL earlier in the day and came out of the bullpen in the eighth inning of the first game of St. Louis’s doubleheader to mop up. Though Wainwright did allow a run on two hits, he was throwing 95 mph and looked like his usual self. After the game, manager Mike Matheny said he plans on having Wainwright on the playoff roster, and while his role is yet to be determined, he gives the team an All-Star option in either the bullpen or rotation.

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So it is with the Cardinals, who can sow dragon’s teeth and grow All-Stars. Martinez and Molina may be lost, but Wainwright, Holliday and Adams have returned to join Matt Carpenter, Trevor Rosenthal, Heyward, Lackey, Grichuk, Pham and a dozen other players who will likely be the bane of every other NL fan this postseason. The Cardinals may not superficially resemble the juggernaut you would imagine a 100-win team to be, and they may be entering the playoffs in less of a charge and more of a limping gait, but as they’ve shown all season, no obstacle is apparently too big for them to overcome.

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