Back in the postseason for a fifth straight year, the 100-win Cardinals return to October with an eye on capturing the 12th World Series championship in franchise history. The Cardinals will open the National League Division Series in St. Louis on Friday at 5:30 p.m. CT (TBS) against either the Pirates or Cubs. With that best-of-five series on tap, here is a look at five reasons why the Cardinals can win the World Series for the third time in 10 years:
Despite losing Adam Wainwright just three weeks into the season, the Cardinals have touted one of the stingiest pitching staffs in recent baseball history. With a rotation ERA of 2.99, the Cardinals joined the 2011 Phillies and 1992 Braves as the only teams over the last 25 years to boast a sub-3.00 starters' ERA. Since the mound was lowered after the 1968 season, only the '69 Orioles allowed fewer runs (517) than the Cardinals (525) did this season.
A club that allowed two or fewer runs in 80 games and kept opponents to a .210 average with runners in scoring position enters October without Carlos Martinez, but with four other formidable starters. John Lackey, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha all finished with ERAs of 3.38 or lower. While some may argue the Cardinals don't have an obvious ace, they have rotation depth that could prove critical in a postseason series.
Players spoke of an emotional lift upon seeing Wainwright do the unexpected and return to the mound this season, albeit out of the bullpen. While he doesn't have the time to build up his pitch count to start, Wainwright brings his pedigree to a 'pen that will only be deepened by his presence. The Cardinals don't need Wainwright to close games (as he did in 2006), but he'll fill a setup role alongside some more seasoned relievers.
With Wainwright in the bullpen, manager Mike Matheny will have flexibility in how he deploys his other setup options -- Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness and Jonathan Broxton. An already formidable bullpen -- the team's reliever ERA of 2.82 ranked second in the NL -- only gets better with Wainwright's presence.
On the mend
In a season defined by the way the Cardinals overcame injuries to so many key players, the club is actually as healthy now as it has been at almost any point in the season. Though they will not get any more contributions from Martinez (right shoulder) or Jordan Walden (right elbow), the Cardinals have watched several players return to the field in September.
Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk and Matt Adams are all back to add some oomph to an offense that has collectively underachieved. Wainwright is in the 'pen, and the Cardinals hope that a thumb injury won't keep catcher Yadier Molina off the field. There is reason to project, particularly on the offensive side, that the Cardinals are poised to peak at the best time.
Been there, done that
None of the 10 teams in the postseason has the volume of recent postseason experience to match the Cardinals. They are the only team to advance to the postseason in five straight seasons and have played in 57 postseason games since the start of the 2011 season. Over that time period, they have won seven series, along with the 2012 NL Wild Card Game.
The Cardinals have also been insistent that their having to play meaningful games into the final week of the regular season can provide momentum into October. And, as was evidenced by winning two of three in Pittsburgh to eliminate the Pirates from the division race, the Cardinals showed an ability to step up big when the outcome mattered most.
Home sweet home
No team proved harder to beat at home than the Cardinals, and, by virtue of finishing with the Majors' best record, they will enjoy home-field advantage in the first two rounds of the postseason. That could be a difference-maker. The club won 55 home games, a single-season record at Busch Stadium III. It's also the third-highest home win total in franchise history.
The Cardinals lost three straight at home only twice and had a winning record at home against each of the other four NL postseason participants. They also have two pitchers -- Lackey (9-4, 1.93 ERA) and Garcia (5-2, 1.70 ERA) -- who have been especially dominant at home. And if the Cardinals' home record is not good enough to tip the scales, consider that they also went 45-36 on the road.