ST. LOUIS -- It took a long time for Óscar Mercado to get a chance with the team that drafted him. His 10-year odyssey included stops in Cleveland and Philadelphia before he finally got his Cardinals callup.
When the time came, he could tell good things were starting to happen.
The Cardinals had won seven of their previous eight games to begin climbing out of the hole they had dug themselves throughout April and the first week of May. But what he says he really honed in on was the talent level of the players surrounding him in the clubhouse.
“This is definitely one of the best baseball teams I’ve ever been on,” said Mercado. “It’s kind of crazy just looking around sometimes and seeing so much talent and so many future Hall of Famers.”
Now that Mercado has joined the party, it’s been even more fun. His five RBIs helped the Cardinals beat the Dodgers, 10-5, on Sunday, giving them their 11th win in their last 14 games. In this stretch, they moved out of NL Central cellar for the first time since April 24 and into a third-place tie with the rival Cubs. They now trail the first-place Brewers by just five games. That’s a pretty dramatic climb for a team that started 10-24 and was 10 games out as recently as May 6.
Mercado, who is batting .545 in his first five games for St. Louis, started Sunday’s scoring with a two-run double into the left-center-field gap off Clayton Kershaw, then added an RBI single off the likely future Hall of Famer in the fourth. In this stretch, the Cardinals have won games started by past Cy Young Award winners Corbin Burnes, Corey Kluber and Kershaw -- not to mention stalwarts Julio Urías, Chris Sale and Freddy Peralta.
Even with a schedule so daunting, the Cardinals have scored 101 runs in those 14 games -- most in MLB in that span -- and averaged 7.2 runs per game. It’s fair to say this is the powerhouse offense they thought they would have when they added Willson Contreras to a lineup already stacked with Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and some good young hitters. Why it took five weeks to show up is anyone’s guess.
“They’re real. It’s a real offense,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “They’re coming together and a lot of different guys in that lineup, including our bench, can beat you. It’s showing and it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.”
One theory players and others around the Cardinals have floated for the slow start and hot play recently: They’ve simply come together later than they would have if the club hadn’t lost so many players to the World Baseball Classic during Spring Training. Marmol has tried to kibosh such talk, because he doesn’t want it to be interpreted as making excuses, but players, including team leaders such as Adam Wainwright, have discussed it in recent weeks.
“It was hard to say coming out of spring, because we didn’t really have everybody there,” starter Jack Flaherty said. “But if you look at the names of the guys in here, you know that they’re going to grind out at-bats. I feel like when I face them in live [batting practice] and sim games, it’s never easy, so you knew guys were going to start just piling in one after the other.”
If the lineup proves as good as they think it can be, the Cardinals might not need to pitch all that much better than they already have, but they would certainly like to get Flaherty back to the ace status he carried as recently as 2021 before a shoulder injury diminished his effectiveness. After his finest start in years on Monday, in which he struck out 10 Brewers over seven scoreless innings, Sunday was a step back. He cruised through the first four innings, striking out five, before laboring through the fifth and eventually having Marmol come to get him that inning.
“Thought I had good stuff and, then in the fifth, lost a little command and threw a lot of pitches in that inning,” Flaherty said. “But it’s something I can build off of.”
Flaherty has a description of the kind of confidence the Cardinals are showing these days after weeks in which they showed mostly frustration.
“You’ve got to have a little bit of irrational confidence regardless of what the results are,” Flaherty said.
Lately, the confidence is showing, and for entirely rational reasons.