- St. Louis won eight straight games thanks in part to another mostly anonymous cast of characters.
For the first four months of this season, the St. Louis Cardinals showed few signs of life. They started the year 2–6, fell to 33-40 in late June, entered the All-Star break at 43–45 and even as recently as one week ago, they were still three games under .500, 4 1/2 out in the NL Central and buried 8 1/2 games behind in the wild-card race.
Little had gone right. Newly-signed outfielder Dexter Fowler and his .241/.333/.452 line were on the disabled list. Aledmys Diaz, who finished fifth in last year's NL Rookie of the Year voting, had been sent to Triple A Memphis in late June with a 78 OPS+. There he joined Randal Grichuk, who had been demoted in late May with a .653 OPS after posting an .814 mark combined the past two seasons. Stephen Piscotty, in his first season of a six-year, $33.5 million contract, went on the DL with a groin strain in mid-July and was playing so badly that he too would wind up getting bounced to the minors. Matt Carpenter, a three-time All-Star and one of the game’s most dependable players, was hitting just .246, far below his career average of .280. Even catcher Yadier Molina, the team's longest tenured player who is in his 14th season, was lashing out, responding to manager Mike Matheny's assertion that he was tired in an Instagram post that he hashtagged #misinforming.
But now? The Cardinals pulled off a eight-game winning streak and sit at 61–57, one game behind the Cubs for the NL Central division lead. They’ve even got a feline mascot to boost their spirits (if they find him, that is).
What is to thank for St. Louis's resurgence? Molina’s consistency, the emergence of little-known role players Tommy Pham and Paul DeJong and steady starting pitching. It starts with Molina, whose grand slam one pitch after a cat was removed from the field lifted the Cards over the Royals on Wednesday gave birth to the legend of the Rally Cat. He has eight hits in his last 17 at-bats, and the eight-time All-Star has provided his usual top defense while guiding the pitching staff to a 3.78 team ERA (which ranks fifth in the majors). Even at age 35, Molina remains an indispensable everyday catcher.
Pham is the team's leading hitter despite playing in his first full starting season and missing the first 27 games of the season with a rib cage injury. Pham is slashing .309/.398/.497 with 14 homers and a team-best 3.8 WAR. The hole that Diaz left at shortstop has been assumed by DeJong, a 23-year-old rookie who has exploded for 16 homers in just 62 games—a 43-homer pace over a 162-game season. Fowler, whose own grand slam was the big blow in Thursday's win over Kansas City, is 6-for-13 since returning on Aug. 7 from a DL stint for a forearm strain.
While Pham and DeJong have steadied the offense, it is the pitching staff that has kept the team's postseason hopes alive. Despite a struggling Wainwright, who is 11–5 but has an unsightly ERA of 5.00 and WHIP of 1.46, the other four regular starting pitchers (Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn) each have ERAs under 4.00 and have made at least 21 starts.
Martinez, 25, remains one of the game’s most electric young pitchers—he is striking out 9.59 batters per nine innings and should finish with a career high in strikeouts—despite a rise in his ERA (3.52 this year from 3.04 last year). Lynn, whose name was floated in trade rumors before last month's deadline, is having a down-ballot Cy Young season after missing all of 2016 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He has a career-best ERA+ of 136, and his reliance on his sinker is inducing plenty of soft contact from the opposition. Leake, long one of the game’s most dependable if boring pitchers, is having another delightfully boring season (3.48 ERA and 1.28 WHIP over 23 starts).
After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010 last year, St. Louis entered 2017 as a forgotten competitor in an NL Central expected to be dominated again by the defending world champion Cubs. But Chicago's struggles, including six losses in its past eight games, has kept the division race alive even as the wild-card remains more of a longshot thanks to the success of the Rockies and the Diamondbacks. Four NL Central clubs—including the Brewers (two games behind) and the Pirates (three games out despite being 57-58) have combined to make it the most compelling division race in baseball.
Two years ago, SI's Ben Reiter wrote a story in the magazine headlined "The Walking Red" that compared the Cardinals to zombies for the way they could never quite be killed off despite relying on a revolving cast of characters. Indeed, St. Louis has reached the playoffs 12 times this century and, going further back, hasn't had more than two straight losing seasons in the past 60 years. The Cardinals are never dead, and if they can wrestle their way into the playoffs after surviving this early-season nightmare, then maybe they never will be.