MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Postseason prowess is all in the Cards

Postseason prowess is all in the Cards

Only the Yankees have won more World Series titles than the Cardinals, so when you talk about St. Louis baseball, you should always pick your adjectives carefully.

Good never seems good enough and great sometimes gets topped by even greater. So go ahead and pick your own qualifier to describe the 2015 season, but make sure it's one you've saved for a special occasion.

Shop for NL Central champions gear

Wednesday's NL Central clincher for the Cardinals, an 11-1 rout of the Pirates, certainly was one. It capped one of the most impressive seasons in the history of a franchise that has had so many, with a 100-59 record with three games to play, settling the toughest three-team division race ever.

While the Cards have led the Central since April 16, hanging on was a remarkable feat. The Pirates continued the challenge they've posed since 2013 and the Cubs screamed into contention, with those teams having a combined .596 winning percentage through Tuesday.

There was no room for the Cardinals to blink, and amazingly, given the relentless run of injuries that began when Adam Wainwright's Achilles tendon popped in April and continued through the torn ligaments in Yadier Molina's left thumb and the Stephen Piscotty-Peter Bourjos collision in the series opener in Pittsburgh, they didn't.

What they did do was put together the best record in the Major Leagues. They had threatened the franchise record for victories before slowing down a little in September, but still will finish with at least 100 wins.

That would have been a fabulous result if almost everything had gone right. But somehow the Cards are trying to finish off their sixth consecutive winning month -- stretching the franchise streak to 21, with the last losing month in June 2012 -- to bring postseason baseball back to Busch Stadium. They'll face the Cubs-Pirates Wild Card Game winner in the Division Series, with Game 1 set for Oct. 9 in St. Louis.

Take a bow, Mike Matheny. You too Yadi, Matt Carpenter, Jason Heyward, John Lackey, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Randal Grichuk and, well, pretty much all 46 of the players who have worn those classy uniforms this year.

Let's not forget Bill DeWitt. He and John Mozeliak need to step out of the shadows and accept some credit, too.

This marks the third consecutive division championship and fifth straight trip to the postseason for the Cardinals, the longest run in the team's history. What makes this consistent success especially special is that it has been mostly achieved after DeWitt and Mozeliak decided they could get by without Albert Pujols.

They didn't want to lose Pujols when he reached free agency after the 2011 season, but they wouldn't sacrifice the franchise's disciplined business model to bring him back at any price, which turned out to be $240 million over 10 years. They had already made a major commitment to Matt Holliday and knew they'd be stretched to hang onto Wainwright and Molina while maintaining the game's deepest pitching staff.

Mozeliak and DeWitt have signed no free agent bigger than Jhonny Peralta since Pujols jumped to the Angels, winning instead with pitching, homegrown talent and constant attention to detail. The current RBIs leader is Carpenter, with 83, and no Cardinal has driven in 100 runs since Holliday had a 102-RBI season in 2012.

Matheny has done a masterful job constructing lineups according to who is available and how they match up with the opposing starter and, as usual, has used his bullpen brilliantly to nail down victories. The Cardinals have had the most save situations in the NL, and also the best percentage of saves. That's how you hang onto first place for 168 days.

Rosenthal has become as feared as any closer in the game and Kevin Siegrist is becoming one of the best lefty set-up men. But the bullpen isn't especially loaded behind them, which is why Wainwright could wind up playing a major role as a reliever in October.

Without Wainwright, Martinez was bidding to be the No. 1 starter before he was lost to a sore shoulder after a six-pitch start on Sept. 25. But despite it all, the Cardinals have allowed one run or no runs 48 times, their most since 1968.

They've allowed only 3.2 runs per game. That's almost one-half run per game fewer than the next stingiest team in the Majors, the Pirates, and nearly two runs per game fewer than the Rockies, who have allowed the most in the league.

With Molina's health an unknown and Martinez no longer a consideration for a starting rotation that's expected to include Wacha, Lackey, Lance Lynn and Jaime Garcia, the Cardinals might seem vulnerable heading into the NLDS against the Pirates or the Cubs. But their immediate goal now shifts to reaching the NLCS for the fifth year in a row, and no one does a better job of keeping their eyes on the ball than the Cardinals. No matter what comes their way.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.