Cards' path to World Series mirrors 2011's title run
Club navigates similar course to brink of second title in three years
BOSTON -- With a twist on the old Machiavellian adage, the Cardinals have proven in getting back to the World Series for the second time in three seasons that the end validates the means.
Just as they did in 2011, the Cardinals have been able to navigate injuries to key players, initiate a late-season closer switcheroo and play their most complete baseball late in order to advance to the World Series, which opens in Boston on Wednesday (airing live on FOX at 6:30 p.m. CT; first pitch is at 7:07 p.m.). In both years, a well-planned blueprint had to be patched up with unexpected contributors.
The 2011 club, of course, capped its season by raising a World Series flag. Four more wins this month and the Cardinals will be feted in the same way.
"It's a very similar model," said Lance Lynn, one of the seven Cardinals to appear on both the 2011 and 2013 World Series rosters. "That's what the Cardinals do -- they bring in guys who can contribute right away. That's why you see this organization have good teams year in and year out."
Before the Cardinals broke camp in the spring of 2011, they had lost their co-ace. Tommy John surgery relegated Adam Wainwright to cheerleading duty for the next seven months. This year, the losses were more numbered. Chris Carpenter went down first. Rafael Furcal and Jason Motte fell soon after.
The injuries piled on as 2011 unfolded, with David Freese, Allen Craig, Skip Schumaker, Lynn and Eduardo Sanchez all going down for extended periods. This year, it was the Cardinals' rotation that was hit especially hard. Jake Westbook and Jaime Garcia both landed on the disabled list in May. The Cardinals missed Craig late. In between, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina sat injured for two weeks.
It all proved merely a bump, hardly an obstacle.
"I think the thing that you take a lot of pride in," general manager John Mozeliak said, "is that we were able to overcome adversity."
The way in which the Cardinals filled holes then and now did vary. Mozeliak was active in the trade market in 2011, landing key pieces in Furcal, Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel and Arthur Rhodes during the second half of the season. Homegrown players Daniel Descalso, Lynn and Fernando Salas also stepped up in big ways.
This year, the Cardinals plugged almost entirely from within. Rookies arrived in waves, and the Cardinals used a Major League-high 20. Their postseason pitching staff features six. The Trade Deadline came and went with no St. Louis activity. The only pickup the Cardinals made occurred in late August, when they landed John Axford from the Brewers.
"We've obviously drafted really well and developed players who have been ready when they got here," Holliday said. "We have guys who have come up with good poise, ready to play. We have good veteran leadership that helps that process along. And they've just made smart decisions, and there is an expectation to win."
Both the 2011 and 2013 Cardinals had their share of closer quandaries to overcome en route to making the bullpen a postseason strength.
Ryan Franklin opened as the club's ninth-inning guy in '11 before his struggles forced then-manager Tony La Russa to hand the job over to a committee of closers. Salas took the bulk of the save opportunities until he faltered late. At that point, Motte took the reins and, without the title, remained the team's closer through October.
This year, the closer's job has been passed from Motte to Mitchell Boggs to Edward Mujica and, most recently, to Trevor Rosenthal, who had not saved a game in his career until the final week of the regular season. He has not allowed a run since.
"I think, more than anything, he trusts his stuff," manager Mike Matheny said of Rosenthal. "And he's got quite a few guys around here who have been able to do both, as a setup man, as a closer, as a previous starter, to give them an idea of what he needs to do, and what he needs to do is throw the ninth exactly like he [threw] the eighth. Trevor is a smart kid, he's been able to put that and translate that and then go out and not try to do anything more."
Other aspects of the two seasons, however, distinguish the journeys. Though both clubs finished the year by winning 15 of their final 20 games, the 2011 Cardinals needed every one of those wins to earn a playoff spot. This year, the Cardinals had a postseason spot locked up before that final stretch, though the strong finish allowed the Cardinals to capture a division title and home-field advantage.
"You look at the season, the '11 season was much harder," Mozeliak said. "This team won 97 games. Even though we had our ups and downs, we were still a very good team."
There was no Michael Wacha in that '11 postseason just like there is no Carpenter in this one. Two years ago, the Cardinals' offense and bullpen carried much of the postseason load. This October, it has been the rotation.
"You look at 2011, we were finding barrels left and right," Freese said. "We slugged our way. This year, our pitching has saved our tails. But that's cool."
The achievement then remains the goal now. The Cardinals' 2011 postseason run was largely unexpected. This year, the unexpected has been more on the individual, with a group of players rallying around adversity to emerge a better whole.
"It's a statement about our organization, about our Minor League system, about the job that the big league coaches do, the Minor League coaches, the front office," Carpenter said. "The guys in the organization that come up from the minor leagues and to do what we did is pretty special. It's been a lot of fun to be a part of."