How they got here: Cards unfazed by sked

September 28th, 2020

When the Cardinals returned from a 17-day layoff in August, after a coronavirus outbreak affected 10 players and eight staff members, their schedule was packed with doubleheaders, very few off-days and one goal in mind: Survive each day -- while keeping the postseason in sight.

Now October baseball is closer than ever, and the Cardinals are back in the playoffs for a second consecutive year. That is no small feat for this club after what it endured this season. If you thought 2020 was unique, consider St. Louis' year:

St. Louis played 53 games over the last 44 days. The club had at least 10 players miss games with COVID-19 and was forced almost daily to shuffle its roster to be ready for that day's game(s). The Cardinals had 16 games rescheduled, forcing 11 doubleheaders. At the pinnacle, they played six doubleheaders over 14 days from Sept. 5-18.

"There's been a lot of baseball played," manager Mike Shildt said recently. "And these guys have laid everything out, heart and soul, every night."

Here's a look at how the Cardinals got here this season:

How they were built:

Amateur Draft: C Yadier Molina (fourth round, 2000), INF Matt Carpenter (13th round, '09), 2B Kolten Wong (first round, '11), RHP Jack Flaherty (first round, '14), LHP Austin Gomber (fourth round, '14), RHP Daniel Ponce de Leon (ninth round, '14), RHP Jake Woodford (Competitive Balance Round A, '15), OF Harrison Bader (third round, '15), SS Paul DeJong (fourth round, '15), RHP Ryan Helsley (fifth round '15), OF Dylan Carlson (first round, '16), UTL Tommy Edman (sixth round, '16), C Andrew Knizner (seventh round, '16), RHP Kodi Whitley (27th round, '17)

International signings: RHP Carlos Martínez (2010), RHP Alex Reyes ('12)

Free agents: OF Dexter Fowler (2016), 1B/OF Rangel Ravelo ('17), LHP Andrew Miller ('18), LHP Kwang Hyun Kim ('19), C Matt Wieters ('20), INF Brad Miller ('20)

Trades: RHP Adam Wainwright (2003 via Braves), RHP John Gant ('16 via Braves), OF Tyler O'Neill ('17 via Mariners), RHP Seth Elledge ('18 via Mariners), RHP Giovanny Gallegos ('18 via Yankees), LHP Génesis Cabrera ('18 via Rays), 1B Paul Goldschmidt ('18 via Diamondbacks)

Waivers: LHP Tyler Webb (2018 from Padres)

Currently on injured list: RHP Dakota Hudson (right elbow strain), RHP Carlos Martínez (left oblique strain), RHP John Gant (right groin tightness), RHP Miles Mikolas (right forearm strain), OF Austin Dean (right elbow strain), RHP John Brebbia (Tommy John surgery), LHP Ricardo Sánchez (left elbow pain), RHP Jordan Hicks (right elbow/opted out of season)

Key offseason acquisition: While the minor signing of Miller has provided a big jolt to the offense at times, the addition they made to their pitching staff is proving to be a crucial signing. Korean lefty Kim hasn't let the unusual year affect his performance on the field, even as he adjusted to a new team, new league and new country. After opening the season as the closer, Kim moved back to the rotation when the Cardinals returned from their layoff. He then authored four consecutive outings of five-plus innings and zero earned runs. With a 1.62 ERA in 39 innings pitched, Kim has been one of the top contributors in a strong rotation.

Key managerial decision: It is hard to narrow down the decisions Shildt has made to keep this team afloat during all the doubleheaders without days off. Shildt's management of the bullpen was driven mostly by availability that day, especially with all the games packed in, so he never really named a surefire closer. But that worked to his advantage; he's been able to mix and match relievers specific to the inning, matchup, pitch profile and more. Seven different relievers have notched saves this season. Shildt has also maneuvered the lineup to get regular position players a game or two off when there aren't scheduled off-days -- all while winning games.

Defining season stretch: On Aug. 15, the Cardinals returned to their schedule with a doubleheader against the White Sox, the first two games of eight in six days against the White Sox and Cubs in Chicago. The Cardinals had barely any time on the field for 17 days; the only two formal workouts for batting practice and throwing sessions were a week before Aug. 15. Any work Cards players got in during their quarantine was what they could do on their own in their St. Louis apartments and houses. So it was reasonable to expect that they would need a few days to get back into the swing of games.

The Cardinals swept the doubleheader on Aug. 15, returning with a statement that they were still out to win games. Then they went on to win four of the eight in Chicago, breaking even on a taxing road trip that saw 11 players make their Major League debut.

Breakout player: The Cardinals have known what Reyes could bring to their pitching staff since the former top prospect began ascending the Minor Leagues. But years of injury have stalled that impact -- until this year. St. Louis went into the season hoping that Reyes could help them but without any real expectations. For the first time in three years, Reyes showed what he can do to impact the Cardinals. The 26-year-old pitched his way to a late-inning relief role and has excelled there, getting key outs across multiple innings and working in tandem with lefty Cabrera, who is also a candidate for this label.

Calling card: With an offense that struggles to show consistent power, the Cardinals win games with their pitching and defense. Both their rotation and bullpen have been excellent for most of this season, which was expected going into the season but impressive still when you think of the Cardinals' schedule. Cardinals starters had a 3.89 ERA while their relievers had a 4.06 ERA. Together, that was a 3.90 ERA for fourth in the NL. The pitching has fueled the Cardinals to win those close games, and the defense helps, while the offense works through its issues.

Memorable moment: There's nothing quite as fun as a veteran player turning back the clock, and that has been Wainwright's season. The Cardinals veteran has turned into their ace again, constantly picking up the team when they need him most. In one of the more special moments of 2020, Wainwright twirled a complete-game gem against the Indians on his 39th birthday on Aug. 30. What made it even better was that he threw to Molina, his longtime batterymate who was playing in his 2,000th career game. The duo has defined the past decade and show no signs of stopping.