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LOUIS -- At precisely the right moment -- in fact with not a moment to spare -- the St. Louis Cardinals began playing the kind of baseball that would get them a spot in the postseason.
The Cardinals edged closer to the National League's second Wild Card berth on Monday night with a 4-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. The victory reduced the Cardinals' magic number to one.
One more victory by the Cardinals, or one more loss by the Dodgers -- who walked off with a 3-2 victory over the San Francisco Giants later Monday night to keep their slim postseason hopes alive -- will clinch the NL Wild Card for St. Louis.
The Cardinals are 11-3 since Sept. 16, the same day they earned a dramatic 12-inning victory over the Dodgers, who turned out to be their closest pursuers for the NL Wild Card berth.
It is true that there were some series against the Astros and Cubs in there, but this is a game that primarily asks "How many?" rather than "How?"
For anybody who wanted to make certain that the degree of difficulty was sufficient, the Cardinals' last six games of the regular season feature the two teams with the best records in the NL -- the Nationals and Reds. St. Louis took two out of three from the Nats before winning its series opener against Cincinnati.
The Cards started the season 20-11 before an avalanche of injuries helped to significantly slow their progress. Later, when they had regained something like good health, they were not able to consistently put together the kind of streak that their roster-wide talent suggested was eminently possible.
But in September, and the first night of October, the Cardinals reached the necessary level.
"It is something that I'm sure everybody got sick of hearing, but we hadn't gone on our best run yet," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We talked about that a lot, and that was really the pulse of what was going on in the clubhouse. Guys knew that we had all the different components, but as far as taking a nice, consistent run of good baseball, we really didn't have that.
"So we've been anxiously awaiting it, and fortunately it showed up now," Matheny said with a small smile.
The Cardinals' starting pitching has been particularly effective over the last month, as in the case of Jaime Garcia in Monday's game.
"We've done that at different parts of the season; it's not just something that we tacked on at the end," Matheny said. "We had a couple different runs where our starters would go through the rotation a couple of times as good as anybody in either league. So we knew that was there. It's a long, hard season to be able to pull that off all year long. But guys have kicked it in gear when they needed to. Our success begins and ends with our starting pitching."
Add it all up, and these people should be in the postseason. They almost are.
"We've been playing good baseball, playing good games," said second baseman Daniel Descalso, who contributed a run-scoring triple and his usual solid defense on Monday night. "That's all you can ask for down the stretch."
In addition to an indisputable amount of talent, the Cardinals have the rare experience of coming from far off the pace to qualify for the postseason, as they did last year, catching and passing the Atlanta Braves to claim the NL's only Wild Card berth on the last day of the season.
"I think it's huge; I think it's an advantage," Matheny said. "Just to see the situation and the atmosphere, and then to have success, like these guys did last year, it's invaluable for when you're making a push, because they made this kind of push last year. With everything on the line they got better. And I think they've come to expect that from themselves."
This year, the Cardinals are more nearly the hunted than the hunter in the final days of the season. But they have played well enough to put themselves in the position of, as the players annually say, "controlling our own destiny." The Cardinals have played well enough recently to keep that control and keep hopes of a second straight World Series championship alive.