They didn't back in as much as they climbed in, over a mountain of obstacles. They had major departures, from the game's most prominent player, to one of the game's most prominent managers to one of the most widely respected pitching coaches in the game. And then, after the Cardinals managed to get off to a 20-11 start they were hit with a wave of injuries to important personnel.
When they got somewhat healthier they didn't immediately terrorize the rest of the league. But they did put enough together in September to qualify for the postseason. When they won the Wild Card berth in 2011, after a charge from 10 1/2 games back in late August, they finished the regular season, 90-72.
This team, faced with many more adjustments and considerable adversity, will finish with a very similar record. Can this team duplicate the 2011 Cardinals remarkable run to a World Series championship? That seems to be asking for the stars when you already have the moon, but it is, after all the goal shared, in theory at least, by all 30 Major League franchises.
It will be harder this year. The same second Wild Card berth that will give the Cardinals a way into the postseason will also punish the Wild Card entrants with a one-game playoff. The Wild Card teams will have to spend some of their best pitching in this game. The notion that the Wild Card teams have not been sufficiently penalized for failing to win a division should now be ended.
The Cardinals will play the one-game playoff against the Braves in Atlanta on Friday. There is no picnic involved in this scenario, either.
On Monday night, after defeating the Reds in the opener of this series, the Cards had stayed in the Busch Stadium clubhouse only to watch the Dodgers defeat the Giants to keep the Wild Card race alive.
This time, after losing to the Reds, the Cardinals watched the Giants come up with the desired result in a game that finished at 12:40 a.m. Wednesday, St. Louis time and finally clinched the Wild Card spot for the Cardinals.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny Tuesday night decided that enough was enough and that his players should opt for rest at home as opposed to another viewing party at the old ballpark. They ignored him and stuck around, which turned out to be a good move.
"They don't listen well," Matheny said with a small smile.
In fact, the record will show that one of the reasons the Cardinals have returned to the postseason is that the St. Louis players paid very close attention to their new manager. There was a thought, among people who didn't know Matheny, that the rookie manager would be overmatched, starting his managerial career at the highest level.
Anybody who had known Matheny as a player, and had observed him as a person, would have recognized the intelligence, the integrity, the empathy and a full range of leadership skills that all were perfect fits for a big league managerial job.
Perhaps the 2011 Cardinals formed an impossible act to follow, but this club has made for a compelling story itself.
After the team celebrated early Wednesday morning in a clubhouse closed to reporters, team officials emerged with particular praise for Matheny's work. General manager John Mozeliak said, he was proud of all the Cardinals, "especially Mike Matheny, what he was able to accomplish with his leadership."
Bill DeWitt, chairman and chief executive officer of the Cardinals, termed Matheny's work in his first year of managing as "a great job."
Matheny emerged from the clubhouse after his bosses. Faced with evidence of their praise he did what was in character for him, completely deflecting the notion of taking any credit for the success of this club this season.
What Matheny would offer as a comment anywhere near this topic was this: "If we weren't in this spot, it would be hard to handle, because we have such a good team."
No, the 2012 Cardinals did not fall off the face of the planet following the notable departures and despite the damaging injuries. There are even fewer sure things than usual in this postseason, but whatever happens next, the Cardinals are still highly talented, highly motivated and very well managed.