Organizational depth fills holes left by injury, retirement, free agency
ST. LOUIS -- No Tony. No Albert. No sweat.
Future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa retired after the Cardinals' 2011 World Series championship. The most prominent player in the game at the time -- Albert Pujols -- left for Anaheim in the same offseason. Big losses, no doubt, but they were not followed by anything resembling a collapse.
After 2012, a 16-3 starting pitcher -- Kyle Lohse -- also departed. The Cards played the 2013 season with two of their top pitchers on the disabled list in starter Chris Carpenter and closer Jason Motte, along with projected starting shortstop Rafael Furcal. With Motte out for the season, St. Louis has used Mitchell Boggs, Edward Mujica and now Trevor Rosenthal in that role.
To all of these negative, seemingly damaging events, the 2013 Cardinals can happily respond: "So what?"
The Redbirds are returning to the World Series for the second time in three seasons. They are also returning to the Fall Classic for the fourth time in the past 10 seasons. No other Major League club can make that statement. If they win the World Series, it will be their third World Series championship of this century, and they would be alone in that category, too.
The Cardinals advanced with a six-game triumph over the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, capped by a resounding 9-0 victory at Busch Stadium on Friday night. This series was like a tribute to the quality and quantity of the Cards' pitching, in particular their young pitching.
Michael Wacha, merely 22 years old, won two games, including the clincher, and absolutely dominated the Dodgers. Twice in the series, he was matched against the likely NL Cy Young Award winner, Clayton Kershaw, and twice Wacha was the better pitcher.
This was an organizational victory. This was, for that matter, a magnificent show of organizational strength.
None of this is to diminish in any way the monumental contributions of people such as La Russa and Pujols, and a host of others who helped make this franchise successful. But the Cardinals are now beyond a point where success can be seen as the result of relatively few individual efforts.
General manager John Mozeliak's organization has succeeded on every level, from scouting to player development to instruction, from the low Minor Leagues to the big club. The Cards are identifying great talent, nurturing that talent, successfully bringing up highly-talented young players who then produce remarkably mature performances.
When the young players reach the Majors, they are shown the ropes by not only the coaching staff, but by veteran players who let them know the expectations for both their play and their personal conduct.
At the end of the day, the Cardinals are winners. And they don't appear likely to go into a slump any time soon.
Mozeliak chose wisely when he turned to Mike Matheny as his choice for manager after La Russa's retirement. Matheny had no previous managerial experience, but what he had was intelligence, diligence and a history with the Cards as a Gold Glove Award-winning catcher. He was respected, both as a leader of men and a human being.
Matheny was an ideal keeper of the tradition of "The Cardinal Way." He generally kept his public persona as manager as understated as possible, but he remained a day-to-day, play-to-play, pitch-to-pitch "grinder" in the best Cardinals tradition.
You want grinding? How about Matt Carpenter's 11-pitch at-bat in the third inning against Kershaw that turned the entire game around? The at-bat ended in a double and opened up the floodgates for the Cards. It was a product of Carpenter's determination, and it was a first-class example of the Cardinal Way.
"He's the best pitcher in baseball," Carpenter said of Kershaw. "He's a real tough at-bat. He got ahead of me, like he almost always does. I struck out my first at-bat. And, honestly, when he got two strikes on me the second at-bat, my mindset immediately changed. 'I'm not striking out. I'm not going to let him strike me out right here. I'm going to put this ball in play, even if I roll it over and hit it softly.'
"He kept making good pitches and I kept fouling them off. Then the crowd started getting into it a little bit, and I was able to get the count back to 2-2. And he finally made a mistake with the slider out over the plate, and I was able to hit it and got into scoring position with the double."
The 2013 season, and the postseason so far, are necessary steps forward from the recent past, in the Cardinals' view of the baseball world. The 2012 Cards qualified for the postseason as a Wild Card team and won a Division Series matchup against the Nationals. But after taking a 3-1 lead against the Giants in the NLCS, they lost the last three games.
This year, it's all better. There was an NL Central title. There were 97 victories, the best record in the league. And now, there are two triumphs in two postseason series, good for another NL pennant.
"I think we've been fortunate to be in an organization that winning is a tradition, winning is an expectation," Matheny said. "We start talking early on about the history and the championships, the great players who have made their mark on this organization and in the game. So we take a lot of pride in trying to carry ourselves like a championship club.
"These guys have been training themselves, I think, in the expectation that we need to put together a season that's representative of what this club stands for."
Much has been said about the load carried by the young St. Louis pitchers in this postseason. But one of the most important factors, in both production and leadership, has been veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran. He was asked Friday night what it meant to be a member of the Cardinals.
"This organization has always been an organization where they have a lot of tradition and being able to put good teams out there, being able to put players in that know how to play the game of baseball and play the right way," Beltran said. "So being part of this organization has been great. It's allowed me to understand how they do things and how it's allowed me to get to know the guys, the organization and the way they think."
The more you see the Cards play, the more you get the picture. This is a winning organization. Other teams may have higher payrolls or higher profiles. This team is the NL's best once more.