Anyone who underestimates the St. Louis Cardinals in either September or October is making a mistake, not to mention repeating a mistake that has already been made.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are the flavor of the month in the early projections for National League postseason success. This is completely understandable. The Dodgers had a big second half. They have the still relatively new and dynamic talent of Yasiel Puig. They are outstanding at the top of the rotation with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. They are, without question, extremely talented.
The Cards, meanwhile, are less publicized, but more tested at this late-season, postseason line of work. They lead the NL in runs scored, even though they are 13th in home runs and 15th in stolen bases. What the Redbirds are, in their lineup and in general, is relentless. They are hitting with runners in scoring position at an historic level.
The Cardinals are on the verge of clinching the NL Central. They currently have the best record in the league. They are building on their own success. The Cards are the only NL team that has had a winning season in each of the last six years.
"You hear a lot of people talk about having sustained success," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "The ideal model is perpetual success. So you're trying to figure out a way to do that year in and year out, and it's always a challenge. Obviously, every year you have different challenges, different adversities to go through. But you do take a lot of pride in winning.
"From a Major League standpoint, you need a core group of players that are very good. We've been able to establish that. Then our farm system has been able to produce core players, but then also, complementary players to give us that balance."
The Cards also have what looks to the opposition like an inexhaustible supply of young pitchers with high-90s fastballs who show up in the Majors in their early 20s, pitching with the poise and effect of veterans. Tuesday night, Michael Wacha, 22, threw 8 2/3 innings of no-hit ball against Washington. Wednesday afternoon, Shelby Miller, 22, won his 15th game of the season.
"Obviously, you've got to credit your amateur scouts for finding the talent," Mozeliak said. "But I also think Gary LaRocque [senior advisor to player development] running our farm system and Brent Strom [Minor League pitching coordinator] they just do a very good job of preparing players, getting them ready for this next stop.
"You know, velocity is nice, but I think what's more important is, when these players come up they're not scared, they're prepared."
And there is an indomitable quality about this club that pays off at this time of year. In 2011, the Redbirds were seemingly hopelessly out of postseason contention in late August. They eventually won the World Series.
In 2012, the Cardinals were widely written off as a Wild Card possibility, after the Dodgers pulled off their mega-trade with the Red Sox. But the Cards, not the Dodgers, qualified for the second NL Wild Card. And St. Louis advanced to within one victory of the World Series.
This year, depending heavily on young pitching talent, St. Louis is again making a late move. The Cards are 16-8 this September and 14-5 over the last 19 games.
Manager Mike Matheny says that one of the beauties of baseball at this time of the year is the sense of a group of individuals coming together in a common cause. The Cardinals definitely know how to do this.
"That's something that has probably been more obvious now than ever," Matheny said. "You see the energy in here [the dugout] and there [the clubhouse]. We've had a couple tough games and you see how guys respond. There were a couple of innings where you could see that a team that didn't have that character, that common fight in them, they wouldn't handle that situation well. But these guys responded to every situation, every bit of adversity.
"It reminded me a lot of that Game 5 [in the NLDS] in Washington last year. We're down big, but there just an energy, a life, a fight. The fight more so than anything else. The guys are on point.
"That's really fun to watch. It's led by veterans, but the young guys are getting so much, they may not have any clue how much they're learning and getting better by being a part of what is going on here. The guys who have done it know that this is how it has to happen, so they're forcing the issue. But everybody's joining in."
There will be no shortage of quality clubs in the NL postseason. All five have demonstrated substantial quality or they couldn't have come this far. But any calculation that easily dismisses the Cardinals is missing what this club has to offer.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.