ST. LOUIS -- A group that reported to Spring Training motivated by what was left unaccomplished in 2012 was sent into the offseason stung by the reality that their championship aspirations had fallen two wins short in 2013.
That should not, however, overshadow a season in which so much else went right. This is a club that was able to emerge from a tough National League Central with 97 wins -- a total matched only by the Red Sox, the World Series champs. On their way to a fourth Fall Classic trip in the last decade, the Cardinals sent the Pirates and Dodgers home.
"We had a great group here," Allen Craig said. "It was fun to come to the park every day, and I think that showed in our performance this season, winning 97 games and making it to the World Series. We have a lot to be proud of. Obviously, we're disappointed we couldn't win this World Series, but it's still a great group."
Matt Holliday described that group as "a really cool combination of older veteran players and a lot of puppies and some in-betweens. A lot of high-quality, character people on this team that it was a joy spending time with on and off the field."
Established veterans Adam Wainwright, Carlos Beltran, Holliday and Yadier Molina were joined by all sorts of new faces as the season went on. The Cardinals moved into the division's top spot with a 20-7 May and later held off the Pirates by winning 17 of their final 22 games.
In between, the Cardinals filled holes in their rotation and reconfigured their bullpen. Their offense gelled and the reinforcements all came from within the organization, too, as the Cardinals' only outside acquisition (John Axford ) came in late August.
The Cardinals further cemented their claim as the NL's team of the century by advancing to the postseason for the 10th time since 2000. Their attempts to become the first NL club to win three World Series during that span, though, will have to wait another year.
"It's tough not winning the World Series," Matt Adams said. "But we've got a great club here and we've got to walk out of here with our heads up and feeling like we've accomplished something."
Record: 97-65, NL Central and NL champions
Defining moment: The apex of the Cardinals' season came on Oct. 18, when, in front of a sellout crowd at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals became NL champs for the 19th time in franchise history. In a postseason where the Cardinals lost a lot of their offensive identity, this was one of the few exceptions. The night was highlighted by an inning in which the Cardinals made Clayton Kershaw throw 48 pitches; it was reflective of the grinding mentality they prided themselves on during the season. A team that hit .330 with runners in scoring position went 6-for-14 on this night. And a club that was carried by so many young contributors marveled as three rookies combined to pitch a shutout. A year after falling a win short of a World Series return, the Cardinals dispatched the Dodgers to get back to the Fall Classic for the fourth time since 2004.
What went right: Matt Carpenter did his offseason homework to learn how to play second base and went on to put together one of the best seasons by a Cardinals second baseman in franchise history. He filled a positional hole, set the tone atop the lineup and should get plenty of recognition in the MVP race. … Forced to fill several holes due to injury and ineffectiveness, the Cardinals were lifted by a number of rookie performances. Shelby Miller won 15 games as a member of the rotation. Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist anchored the bullpen. Adams became a key piece on the bench and filled an everyday void when Craig went down. Michael Wacha had one of the best postseason runs of any rookie in baseball history. … Led by Wainwright, the Cardinals' rotation finished second in the NL with a 3.42 ERA. The group was so dominant over the first six weeks that it landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Wainwright won 19 games during the regular season. Combining his regular-season work with his postseason appearances, he threw 276 2/3 innings in his second season back from Tommy John surgery. … When the Cardinals needed a closer, Edward Mujica stepped up to save 37 games. … Molina was the constant behind the plate amid so much pitching turnover. He guided the staff through a strong season and remained a force in the middle of the lineup. … Since situational hitting began being tracked regularly, no team has had near the success with runners in scoring position that the Cardinals did this year. Five of the top six NL averages with runners in scoring position were St. Louis hitters: Craig (.454), Holliday (.390), Carpenter (.388), Beltran (.374) and Molina (.373).
What went wrong: Before the Cardinals could even break from Spring Training, they watched as Chris Carpenter, Rafael Furcal and Jason Motte went down with injuries that would keep them off the field all season. In-season injuries to Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook, Molina, Holliday and Craig all presented obstacles, as well. … Though the Cardinals' bullpen eventually became a strong suit, it had an awful April. Mitchell Boggs imploded as a closer and would later be traded to the Rockies. Marc Rzepczynski pitched his way out of the bullpen, and the organization, too. … The Cardinals became so dependent on situational hitting because they had such a power shortage. A year after having five players hit 20 homers, the Cardinals finished 13th in the NL with 125 home runs. Only Beltran (24) and Holliday (22) reached that 20-homer threshold. … The left side of the St. Louis infield did not provide much in the way of production. Third baseman David Freese had a down year, hitting .262 with nine homers and 60 RBIs. Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso combined to hit .222 at short. … In the postseason, the Cardinals were hampered by their offense, which hit .215 in their 17 playoff games.
Biggest surprise: The Cardinals opened the season boasting of their saturated farm system. It was a luxury that became a necessity as the organization ended up having so many holes to fill. In the end, St. Louis used a Major League-most 20 rookies, several of which stepped into critical spots. Without lifts from rookies Wacha, Adams, Miller, Rosenthal, Siegrist, Maness and Martinez, in particular, the Cardinals' season would never have extended to the final days of October. Not only did these young players contribute to a special year in St. Louis, but they have the organization positioned for long-term success.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.