The 2015 St. Louis Cardinals defy logic. National League Central Division champions (again) the Cardinals will enter the postseason this week as baseball’s first 100-game winner since the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies. And they’ll do so having endured a season of injuries that — on paper — would seem to compromise the chances of a wild-card chase, let alone that magical three-figure win total. A quick summary (well, as quick as I can make such a list):
• Three men expected to play every day — first-baseman Matt Adams, leftfielder Matt Holliday, and centerfielder Jon Jay — each missed more than half the season. All three returned to the active roster in September and will be expected to perform in the playoffs for St. Louis to advance.
• The team’s longtime ace, Adam Wainwright, tore his left Achilles heel in his fourth start of the season on April 25th. Initially considered lost for at least nine months, Wainwright returned last week as a highly paid supplement to the Cardinal bullpen. (You’ll remember the last season Wainwright missed — 2011 — ended in a Cardinals’ world championship. The last season he spent in the St. Louis bullpen — 2006 — also ended with a parade.)
• Jay’s replacement in centerfield — Randal Grichuk — played like a Rookie of the Year contender until straining ligaments in his throwing elbow in August and sitting out a month.
• All-Star catcher Yadier Molina injured his hand applying a game-saving tag to the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo on September 20th. His condition for the playoffs (his ninth postseason with St. Louis) remains in question.
• Holliday’s replacement in leftfield — Stephen Piscotty — hit .305 and drove in 39 runs (better than Holliday in each category) since his promotion from Memphis in July. But Piscotty crashed horrifically with centerfielder Peter Bourjos in Pittsburgh on September 28th, suffering “only” a concussion despite being carted off the field.
• Carlos Martinez — winner of 14 games and the team’s strikeout leader with 184 — will miss the postseason with shoulder tightness, likely the result of his 2014 innings load (89) doubling this season.
Then you have relief pitchers Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle. Acquired last winter, the two combined to pitch 44 innings. Hard to know what the Cardinals missed here.
When you consider the tragic death (in a car accident) of outfielder Oscar Taveras last October, the torn tendons and bruised bones of 2015 are little more than distractions. St. Louis will seek its 20th National League pennant with a roster devoid of a 100-RBI man, no one with 30 home runs, nary a 20-game winner on the pitching staff. It’s a 100-win team that could sweep the Pirates or Cubs on its way to a fifth straight National League Championship Series ... or just as easily be swept aside by Pittsburgh (winners of 98 games) or Chicago (97). Since September 1st, St. Louis is merely 15-16. And consider this: The last three Cardinal teams to win 100 games (in 1985, 2004, and 2005) did not win the World Series.
If strength in adversity, though, is a quality of champions, these Cardinals are fully armed. If you spent any time at AutoZone Park this past summer, the Cardinals’ pennant race should look familiar. Piscotty, Tommy Pham, and Greg Garcia spent most of their season in Memphis uniforms before delivering clutch hits down the stretch. No Wainwright? No Martinez? Last Wednesday in Pittsburgh, Tyler Lyons (9-5 with the Redbirds this season) took the mound and shut down the Pirates to clinch the Cardinals’ division title. It’s been one “next-man-up” moment after another for six months in St. Louis. One more such month and Busch Stadium will have a 12th flag to fly.