Tragedy mars Cardinals' season of highs

Wong embraces October spotlight; Taveras' death stuns baseball world

Tragedy mars Cardinals' season of highs

ST. LOUIS -- There was no shortage of standout moments for the Cardinals in 2014, another season that featured a deep postseason run after the club held off the Pirates (again) for a second consecutive National League Central title.

It was a year of great triumph and jarring tragedy, the two striking not that far apart. And that was just in October, following a six-month grind in which the Cardinals often felt starved for offense and fortunate that their pitching talent was enough to sustain other deficiencies. There were unexpected emergences (Pat Neshek), unanticipated declines (Allen Craig) and even some redemption found (Jhonny Peralta).

There were also 90 wins, a 10th NL Central title and a postseason run that fell two steps short. With the calendar about to flip ahead to another year, here is one last look at five of the top moments from the Cardinals' 2014 season:

5. Opening Day masterpiece

The Cardinals collected the first of those 90 wins on Opening Day with a boost from their All-Star batterymates. Adam Wainwright, who would go on to become a 20-game winner for the second time in his career, set the tone for the season by throwing seven scoreless innings to spoil the Reds' home opener. Wainwright was supported by catcher Yadier Molina, whose seventh-inning solo homer accounted for the game's only run.

Waino's 100th career victory

The 1-0 victory would be the first of seven 1-0 wins for the Cardinals in 2014, the most by the club since the 1968 team had eight. Wainwright's nine strikeouts were the most by a Cardinals Opening Day pitcher since Pete Vuckovich also struck out nine in the team's 1980 opener.

4. Neshek's return home
Even after spending four seasons playing his home games in Minneapolis, Neshek's most meaningful pitch in front of his hometown crowd came as a Cardinal this summer. Manager Mike Matheny made his setup man speechless in early July when he announced that he had included Neshek, 34, as a first-time All-Star on the roster.

Carpenter, Neshek on ASG

The gesture was deserved recognition for Neshek's season, which began with him showing up at Spring Training as a late non-roster invitee. He won a place in the bullpen and eventually pitched his way into a setup role. Though his appearance in the All-Star Game didn't go seamlessly, his being there -- and receiving an extended standing ovation during pregame introductions -- highlighted an incredible season.

3. Taveras tragedy
Less than a week after general manager John Mozeliak laid out Oscar Taveras' aggressive offseason training plan during a season wrap-up news conference, the 22-year-old top prospect was killed, along with his girlfriend, in a one-car accident on a Dominican Republic highway. His death shook an organization and left the baseball world wondering what might have been had the right fielder had the opportunity to live up to his star potential.

Cards mourn the loss of Taveras

While grieving the loss of an active player for the third time since 2002, the Cardinals were also forced to reshape their winter plans. Filling the unexpected right-field hole became a priority and led to the November trade that sent Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins to Atlanta in exchange for outfielder Jason Heyward and right-handed reliever Jordan Walden. Taveras' career ended up being bookended by home runs, one hit in his late-May debut and the other a game-tying dinger in Game 2 of the NL Championship Series.

2. Clipping Kershaw … twice
The best pitcher in baseball this past season stumbled against the Cardinals in October for the second time in as many seasons. Kershaw took a 6-2 lead into the seventh inning of Game 1 of the best-of-five NL Division Series, only to watch the Cardinals score eight runs in the frame. Matt Holliday capped the inning with a three-run homer, necessary insurance for the Cardinals to hold on for a one-run win.

 

Cardinals show no quit in Game 1

Kershaw had another chance at the Cardinals just days later and, with the Dodgers on the brink of elimination, he held the Cardinals to one hit over six scoreless innings. But the Cardinals sizzled in the seventh again. After two singles, the left-handed-hitting Matt Adams belted a home run and trademarked his "Big City Leap" in giving the Cardinals a 3-2 lead. Kershaw headed for the dugout, and the Cardinals were on their way to the NLCS.

Must C: Adams' clutch home run

1. Wong walks off
The Cardinals' power surge of October hit its apex in Game 2 of the NLCS, when the club produced its second four-homer game of the season. It was punctuated by the team's fourth postseason walk-off home run, this one by rookie second baseman Kolten Wong.

Must C: Wong's blast ends Game 2

On a night when the Cardinals watched their starting catcher exit with an oblique injury and their closer cough up a lead in the ninth, they were saved by the long ball. Taveras, in what would be his final appearance at Busch Stadium, delivered a game-tying pinch-hit homer in the seventh. Adams followed with an eighth-inning shot, and Wong delivered the final punch in the ninth. That would be one of seven extra-base hits Wong produced in the postseason.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.