The Cardinals Are Picking Up Steam

cardsOn the morning of August 1, the St. Louis Cardinals awoke to find themselves clinging to a half-game lead in the NL Central.  While there had been a boost of energy and enthusiasm following the deal for Matt Holliday and, to a lesser extent, Julio Lugo, the Cards still had their hands full with the division.
On the morning of August 24, the Cardinals began their off-day with a 8 game lead in the NL Central, good enough for one of the largest division leads in baseball.  To go along with that, there was a lot of talk surrounding their new fifth starter, a guy with a little bit of history in the game.
Matt Holliday of the Colorado Rockies hits aga...
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So what happened?  Everything clicked.  The pitching staff continued to pick up quality win after quality win and the offense gained steam as all of the pieces, including Holliday, Lugo and the earlier-acquired Mark DeRosa, started putting up runs and never giving up.  The Cardinals had not won a game when trailing in the ninth all season before Holliday made the team.  Since then, they’ve won three.

The team that in May you could write off when the score reached a three-run gap now routinely came back and stayed in the ball game.  The Cards posted a 15-5 record and started getting mentioned in the “best teams in baseball” discussion as most all of their holes, so glaring earlier in the season, had been dealt with by some deft maneuvering by general manager John Mozeliak.
Still, there was a couple of weak spots.  While the starting pitching had been magnificent, at least the first three slots in the order, the fifth starter spot had caused problems.  Todd Wellemeyer had continued to routinely explode in that slot before winding up on the disabled list.  Mitchell Boggs took a couple of turns there and “mixed” would have been on the generous side.
The other problem was the lack of a shut down right handed reliever.  Jason Motte was supposed to be that guy, but continued to prove his flammability by allowing home runs in almost every outing.  Blake Hawksworth had stepped up and proven his worth, but he was more useful as a longer inning guy, a guy that could go a couple of necessary more than a guy to be a right-handed one-out guy, as it were.  The bridge from starter to Ryan Franklin, who continued to be outstanding in the ninth, was shaky.
John Smoltz

Image by Keith Allison via Flickr

And then Boston again handed St. Louis a piece of their puzzle.  After trading Lugo to the Birds for Chris Duncan, now released, the Red Sox designated John Smoltz for assignment.  After he cleared (and, more importantly, left Boston on the hook for his salary), the Cards swooped in and signed him to cover both roles.  Smoltz will pick up a couple of starts, then eventually slide into the bullpen for the end of the season and the postseason.  Yet another hole had been filled.

More and more, the Cardinals look not to what they need to win the division but what they are going to need after the season is over and postseason play has begun. That focus led them to Smoltz, who started yesterday and promptly set a new team strikeout record by retiring seven in a row in that fashion.  Smoltz threw five scoreless innings and struck out nine overall, giving credence to the thought that there was still life in the arm.

Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright continued their tag-team race into Cy Young contention.  Joel Pineiro kept his ERA under three and, while overshadowed by his dominating teammates, has done an impeccable job himself.
Matt Holliday continues to keep his Cardinal average around the .400 mark.  Brendan Ryan has stepped up and played an outstanding defensive shortstop, plus he has been enough of a threat with the bat not to drag down the whole offense.  Albert Pujols is Albert Pujols.
A team that spent most of the summer treading water has now gotten its legs under it.  Which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the National League.
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