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Cardinals Look Unstoppable Right Now. Here’s Why

St. Louis has ridden Paul Goldschmidt’s great second half and some luck to a 12-game winning streak and the NL’s second wild card.

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A double-digit win streak tends to invite magical thinking. The basic rules of probability no longer seem relevant: At some point, it becomes easier to believe that the team will never lose again than that it will lose tomorrow, and any argument to the contrary feels a little silly. When a streak goes on this long, it develops a distorted, tenuous relationship to regular baseball logic—if any given win begins to look all but impossible, well, isn’t this entire streak supposed to be close enough to impossible?

This was the context for the Cardinals on Thursday, the hope-spinning, logic-defying backdrop for their attempt to extend an 11-game win streak to 12. They did it. And their win still felt absurd by these far-out standards. (Even the most creative magical thinker might not have been able to see this one coming.) After falling behind early to the division-leading Brewers, they put up eight unanswered runs in the last few frames to win the game, sweep the series and extend their streak to the longest by the franchise since 1982.

The 8-5 win over the Brewers was improbable and exhilarating. It was also close to a perfect encapsulation of everything that has gone right for the Cardinals in September—a month that has seen the team enjoy not only this winning streak, but also a dramatic turnaround in their playoff odds, which have gone from “close to nonexistent” (6% on Sep. 1) to “all but guaranteed” (98% on Friday). Just how did Thursday’s win match the bigger picture of all that success? Here’s what it took:

Nolan Arenado greets Cardinals teammate Paul Goldschmidt after the first baseman hit a three-run home run vs. Milwaukee.

1. A Banner Day from Paul Goldschmidt

Goldschmidt’s first home run Thursday tied the game. His second provided a final ninth-inning insurance run. (That one even got him a kiss on the head from Adam Wainwright.) He certainly wasn’t the only offensive force in this comeback win. But with his pair of homers, he was the most crucial one, and if we’re using this game as a snapshot of the team’s recent success, that fits perfectly.

The first baseman had a perfectly adequate first half at the plate—down by his standards but still solidly above average. Since the All-Star Break, however, he’s exploded:

AVGOBPSLGBB/KOPS+

First Half

.265

.335

.432

0.45

113

Second Half

.323

.395

.591

0.56

165

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There have been other offensive breakouts helping to fuel this win streak (Edmundo Sosa, anyone?), just as there have been players who have been steady contributors all along (Nolan Arenado and Tyler O’Neill). But the Cardinals’ hottest hitter of the second half, by far, has been Goldschmidt, and a two-home-run day from him captures the thrust of the team’s recent offensive strength as well as anything could.

2. A Steady Bullpen Performance

Of course, part of scoring eight unanswered runs is ensuring the bullpen shuts down anything that might turn into an answer. Earlier this year, that could have seemed like a tall order for the Cardinals, who finished the first half as the relief corps with the highest walk rate (5.38 per nine innings). But it’s a different story now. There was no large-scale makeover here. Yet there have been meaningful improvements, and the result is a bullpen that’s no longer a liability, at the very least.

On Thursday, that involved two solid innings of relief from erstwhile starter Kwan Hyun Kim, who has been working more as a swingman since returning from an injury last month. That was eventually followed by a shutdown frame from Luís Garcia—who’s been a remarkably pleasant surprise for St. Louis. The 34-year-old was not expected to be a particularly significant midseason addition. In early July, he was released by the Yankees, who had not had him throw a single major-league pitch this season, and he was picked up a few days later by the Cardinals. But he’s since been pitching better than he ever has—due in part to an increased reliance on his sinker—which was on full display Thursday. Neither Kim nor Garcia were relief options here three months ago. Now? They’re part of the core that’s making this bullpen look far more stable.

3. Doing the Little Things Right

Between the two Goldschmidt home runs, there was some small ball, and it was very, very Cardinals Baseball. In the eighth inning, Dylan Carlson singled to right field while Nolan Arenado was on first. Arenado was able to take the extra base and advance to third, and while the defense was caught up in trying to nail him, Carlson took advantage and made it to second. It paid off almost immediately—with a passed ball during the next at-bat. That allowed Arenado to come home for the go-ahead run and Carlson, who would later score on a sac fly, to advance to third.

Which all fits very well with how St. Louis has been approaching baserunning. No team has made fewer outs on the basepaths this season than the Cardinals. But they’ve done that while being fairly aggressive. Their 81 stolen bases are third-highest in the NL, and they routinely take the extra base (43% of the time—also third in the NL). Add that to a generally strong defense, and you have a team that’s excellent at finding value in every pocket of the game, not just the most obvious ones.

4. Get Lucky

But none of the above was what really got the Cardinals’ comeback going. Instead, the scoring in the pivotal seventh inning started with… one run on a force out and another on a throwing error. Which, sure, requires heads-up baserunning and good preparation. But it also requires luck. That’s its own important component of a winning streak like this, and it’s its own component of everything the Cardinals have done in September. There is an element of luck in having these pieces come together all at once. There is an element of luck in having them come together in a way that sequences out to actual wins, rather than just good numbers and hard contact. And there is an element of luck in having them come together right while the other teams in the wild-card race have been fading.

The Cardinals have been very, very good this month, and also very lucky. But that’s the beauty of a winning streak like this: It’s gone on long enough that you don’t have to try figuring out where skill ends and luck begins. The relationship with regular baseball logic has become all warped, anyway. All you have to do is believe.

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