MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Winning culture contributes to Cards' strong finishes

Steady clubhouse leadership, work throughout the year yield results

Winning culture contributes to Cards' strong finishes

MILWAUKEE -- Since 2011, the Cardinals have been the best September team in baseball. St. Louis has a 58-29 record in September over that period, following Sunday's 9-1 win over Milwaukee. If a team carried that pace over an entire season, it would go 108-54.

The 2014 Cardinals don't seem to be easing up on the September accelerator. They have opened the month 6-1 against their two closest pursuers in the National League Central. They swept the Pirates in a three-game series, followed by taking three of four from the Brewers.

You couldn't ask for much more out of those two series. The Cards performed exceptionally. But as far as September goes, that kind of a performance is also a day at the office for the Redbirds.

Their comeback from a huge late-August deficit led to the NL Wild Card berth and a World Series championship in 2011. They qualified again as a Wild Card team in 2012 and came within one game of returning to the World Series. Last season, their 19-8 September helped give them the NL Central title and the best record in the NL. They advanced to the World Series again.

A lot of teams talk about playing their best baseball in September. The Cardinals actually do it. How do they play with this kind of perennial consistency?

Mike Matheny has managed St. Louis for three seasons. During those three Septembers, the Cardinals are 28-11 against division opponents. Matheny declines any credit for these developments as a matter of course. But he has some very worthwhile insights into the Cards' September success.

"I think a lot of it has to do with experience and having some guys who have been there before," Matheny said. "But there are other teams that have been through it and know what it takes. It all comes back to leadership -- and I'm talking about our veteran players, who have been very consistent in how they prepare and go about the games. Then, it's an easy model for the younger players to follow."

The Cardinals have leaders of unquestioned stature, not only within the clubhouse but within the entire sport. Catcher Yadier Molina is an obvious example. Starting pitcher Adam Wainwright would be another. He returned to the top of his form with a complete game on Sunday for his 17th victory.

On other teams, you may hear talk about taking their play up a level or two in September. That's not the Cards' approach. Their idea is that a club should have been at its competitive best since the day the season started, and for every day of the season that followed. If that level is actually attained, there is no need for a late-season adjustment.

"I'm thinking of other teams I've been on that have been in postseason contention, and it seemed like there was this message: 'We've got to do something bigger, better,' down the stretch -- instead of staying the course," Matheny said. "I think when a bunch of young players hear that, I don't think they turn up their level. I think they put more on themselves -- and I think that's counterproductive."

The talent throughout St. Louis' organization is obvious. But it could be that being terrific in September and October is a function of the work that is done during the rest of the year.

"There are other things that go into it, too," Matheny said. "It is a factor of work and preparation and professionalism that guys started in February -- actually started in late November, early December: working out and diet, what they're doing in the weight room, what the starters are doing between starts, what the position players are doing every single day to physically be able to handle what's happening in October. I think that in our clubhouse, it's turned into a maxim -- that our best players are our hardest-working players.

"That sets the bar. It's a test of endurance, as much as will or anything else, and I believe our guys have done it as well as anybody I've ever seen. Not just the consistency of what they're doing, but the consistency of their approach, and the way they take care of themselves."

Now, the outlook for the rest of September 2014 is extremely positive.

"I think when you look at this year, it's comparable to 2011," Wainwright said. "We just knew we had a very good team and we knew we hadn't played our best ball yet.

"So if you've got a great team but you know you haven't played your best ball yet, it's almost like you show up like, 'Today's the day,' expecting it to happen. And it has happened of late. We've played very good baseball against good teams. There's always ways to improve, but I like where we're at."

Matheny lists all the facets of the team, and he finds that they are all functioning on the positive side of the ledger.

"We've seen pluses in a lot of those categories," Matheny said. "That's something that we don't just expect, we demand it of ourselves."

Molina was asked what made the Cardinals so good in September. He smiled, turned around and knocked on the wood of his locker in the Miller Park visitors' clubhouse.

You already knew the Cards were very good in September. If it turns out that they're both good and lucky, you wouldn't want to be on their schedule over the next three weeks.

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