How They Got There: Cards ride hot streak

September 29th, 2021

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals, who rebounded from the pitfalls of June to the highs of a club-record 17-game win streak during crunch time in September, are postseason bound for the third consecutive year and 15th time in 22 tries this century. What a circuitous path they took.

Their clinching the second Wild Card spot via a 6-2 win over the Brewers on Tuesday night was the culmination of the expectations set forth in Spring Training -- plus a remarkable revival from holes they dug themselves into over the course of the season, both due to poor stretches of play and a rash of injuries.

But has returned, is healthy, , remarkably returned, as well, and pitched his way into the National League Cy Young conversation at 40 years of age. Their mix of youth and veterans in the field are gelling and, suddenly, the Cardinals have gone at the exact right time from basement dwellers in June to a team no one wants to face at the most opportune time.

The Cards owned a 2.8 percent chance to make the postseason on Sept. 7, per FanGraphs, and appeared on the brink of folding. Instead, as far as playoff odds date (back to 2014), they now own the lowest odds at any point in September for a team that made the playoffs. Here’s a look at how they got here:

How they were built
Amateur Draft: Yadier Molina, Jack Flaherty, Matt Carpenter, Harrison Bader, Dylan Carlson, Paul DeJong, Tommy Edman, Andrew Knizner, Jake Woodford, Dakota Hudson, Kodi Whitley, Lars Nootbaar, Ryan Helsley, Jordan Hicks, Daniel Ponce de Leon

International signings: Alex Reyes, Edmundo Sosa, Carlos Martínez, Johan Oviedo, Junior Fernández, Angel Rondón

Free agents: Miles Mikolas, T.J. McFarland, Luis García, Andrew Miller, Kwang Hyun Kim, José Rondón, Wade LeBlanc, Max Moroff

Trades: Nolan Arenado, Adam Wainwright, Paul Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill, Giovanny Gallegos, Jon Lester, J.A. Happ, Génesis Cabrera, Seth Elledge, Justin Williams, Austin Dean, Ali Sánchez

Waivers: Brandon Waddell, Justin Miller

Key acquisitions: and
It’s hard to separate the additions and the contributions of García and McFarland, both for their proximity in signing dates and their roles. Each reliever was signed in the early going in July, when the Cardinals began to ever so slightly climb out of the hole they dug for themselves in June. Both provided manager Mike Shildt crucial options for his bullpen -- one from each side of the mound -- and ones who could alleviate the burden on the “Big 3” of Alex Reyes, Giovanny Gallegos and Génesis Cabrera in the late innings. Since July 1, when McFarland was signed eight days before García, the Cardinals have possessed one of the top five bullpens in the NL. Each hurler, at overlapping points of the season, owned scoreless streaks of 18-plus appearances.

Managerial decision: Switching to
Paul DeJong has been a consistent presence in the Cardinals lineup ever since he debuted in 2017, providing quality play at shortstop and a bat with good production to boot. But since he was an All-Star in 2019, DeJong has struggled to stay above the Mendoza Line. An injury to DeJong in May gave Sosa his first consistent playing time -- and the 25-year-old hasn’t looked back, fully claiming the starting role in the second half of the season, though he is now battling a wrist injury of his own. Shildt has spoken highly of DeJong and feels he has plenty left in the tank, but Sosa has provided a winning, productive spark -- with both dazzling defense and consistent offense.

Defining season stretch: Mid-September hot streak
On Sept. 8, the Cardinals arrived at Busch Stadium with a 2-5 record in September, with four straight losses and a pair of heartbreaking walk-off defeats in their previous nine games. Two of the six losses during that stretch came in the first two games of a four-game set against the mighty Dodgers. No matter. St. Louis went on to salvage a split in that series with Los Angeles and then rattled off wins in 19 of their next 20 contests -- including the 17 straight that set a franchise record.

Breakout player:
There were plenty of questions about O’Neill’s capabilities from those who only saw him in limited samples as well as those who knew him well. The left fielder owned just under a full season’s worth of plate appearances over parts of his first three years before 2021, hitting .229 with a 91 OPS+ in his first 450 career plate appearances. And then came 2021's results: an average sitting around .280 and a 145 OPS+, representing the Cardinals’ most consistent presence over the course of the season while keeping his strikeout numbers in check. O’Neill was a Gold Glover in 2020 with tantalizing power, but ’21 is when he showed the St. Louis faithful and the baseball world the complete player he is capable of becoming.

Calling card: Defense
When the Cardinals were enduring their June swoon, Shildt hung his hat on the fact that the defense was still there. If that had ever dissipated, it would have represented the most telltale sign that the effort and processes in place needed a reset. But their ability on defense, leading the Majors in Defensive Runs Saved, allowed the front office to hone in on finding strike-throwers like Jon Lester, Wade LeBlanc and J.A. Happ in order to fill innings. Defense -- and its finer details -- is hammered into the Cardinals on an annual basis during Spring Training. In 2021, that manifested itself through the club fielding five legitimate Gold Glove candidates.

Memorable moment: Arenado’s go-ahead blast(s) against Cincinnati
As modest an accomplishment as it is, the Cardinals entered their last series against the Reds this season without a comeback of at least four runs during the year. After dropping the opener on Sept. 10, St. Louis found itself down by four runs quickly the next day. But it responded to the Reds’ two-homer third inning with a pair of runs in the bottom of the frame -- and later tied the game on a rally punctuated by Nolan Arenado’s RBI triple. They took the lead for good on the third baseman’s two-run blast in the eighth. Arenado’s next swing, a day later, was also a game-winning two-run blast -- all after he questioned his own performance following the opener.