It Would be a Mistake to Count Cards Out

In the first week of the Cardinals season (it’s the first week of the season); we mentioned in The Fast Lane that if the Cardinals lost out on a playoff spot by a game, we could look back and find the reasons. With the Cardinals winning the wild-card spot by a game over Atlanta, it’s almost amazing what they had to overcome.

Think back to opening day, with the Cardinals holding a 3-2 lead and two outs in the ninth, Cameron Maybin of San Diego hit a game tying homer off Ryan Franklin, and the Cardinals lost in extra innings. That was the first of 26 blown saves on the season, which was the second-highest total in the National League.

After the game, the Cards learned that Matt Holliday had appendicitis, and he would wind up missing 10 days of action. Holliday would go on the DL the following month, one of 16 DL trips Cardinals had to take in 2011.

Before the first 10 days of the season were up, Franklin blew two more saves, in back-to-back games in San Francisco, and Redbirds fans were worried. Sixteen games into the season, the club was 8-8 … and Franklin had blown four of the games in the ninth inning or later. Just before that 16th game, Skip Schumaker suffered a hyperextended elbow that would knock him out for more than a month, and Allen Craig went on the DL for the first time during the season, with a groin strain. From then on, the position of closer was a revolving door.

In a three-day stretch at the end of April, Miguel Batista blew a 3-2, eighth-inning lead, and Mitchell Boggs coughed up a ninth-inning advantage in Houston. Then on May 1, David Freese was hit by a pitch in Atlanta that would shelve him for a couple of months.

Despite those issues, the Redbirds got hot, hitting a high-water mark on June 9 with a 9-2 win over Houston that put them at 38-26. That’s when bad times hit as they lost seven straight and embarked on a 29-37 summer. On June 19, the injury issues reached their nadir when Albert Pujols collided with Kansas City’s Wilson Betemit at first base and broke a bone in his arm. Amazingly, Pujols returned on July 7, but couldn’t lift the club out of their malaise.

At the trade deadline, the Cards unloaded the massively disappointing Colby Rasmus along with three JAGs for starter Edwin Jackson and relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski, and reserve outfielder Cory Patterson. At the conclusion of the 66-game stretch between June 9 and August 24, the Redbirds were 67-63 and 10 games behind Milwaukee in the NL Central. Worse, they were 10.5 games behind Atlanta in the wild-card race. But then a strange thing happened. The Cards took six of seven from Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, and found their swagger. The weekend after Labor Day was the key point of the season. The Braves came to town with a 6.5-game lead, but a Cardinals sweep made it 4.5 games.

After that game, the Cardinals went 11-5, and Atlanta closed out their season 6-10. Atlanta lost their last five, giving the Cardinals their opening to make the playoffs.

Can this amazing run continue? Of course. The only two teams in baseball that had winning records against their first-round opponent, the Phillies, were Washington (10-8) and the Cardinals, who went 6-3. The Cardinals pitched exceptionally well against Philadelphia, and found a way to scratch out runs in a late-season trip to Citizen’s Bank Ballpark in which they took three of four.

The Cardinals allowed three or fewer runs in five of the games with Philadelphia, and four runs in two more. Philly scored 10 in a game at Busch Stadium, and nine in a win at Philadelphia, with a six-run eighth the biggest part of that. The Cards did have a 12-run outburst against the Phillies on June 23, with six runs coming late against Danys Baez, who was released Aug. 1. But otherwise they scored 22 runs in the remaining eight games, an average of 2.75 scored per game.

The keys for the Cardinals are threefold. They must get quality innings from their starters. The bullpen is already taxed, and can’t be put in a position to record more than nine outs in any game. Additionally, the Cardinals bullpen must outpitch the Philadelphia bullpen, which is entirely possible. The one Achilles heel on the Phils is their bullpen. The Cards’ kids — Salas, Rzepczynski, Sanchez, Boggs and Motte — whomever is on the roster, must replicate the performance of the 2006 bullpen kids. And guys like Dotel and Arthur Rhodes must come up with key outs in key situations. They can’t force manager Tony La Russa to over to overwork his pen.

Offensively, this is playoff baseball, post-steroids era. Rafael Furcal and Jon Jay need to get on base at the top of the order, and force the issue with their energy. Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman need to have great at bats against the Philly starters. And unlikely heroes, like So Taguchi, Scott Spiezio and Yadier Molina in years past, need to step up.

This playoff appearance itself is most unlikely. I counted the Cardinals out in mid-August. I’m not going to make that mistake again.