With 17th straight, Cards clinch NL Wild Card

September 29th, 2021

ST. LOUIS -- At no point did faith falter, did doubt set it or did the focus shift. The Cardinals -- despite their rash of injuries, despite their self-inflicted wounds, despite the holes they dredged for themselves -- set out this season with only lofty hopes and euphoric celebrations in mind. Like the one they got to cherish on Tuesday night at Busch Stadium.

The path they took might have been circuitous. But the destination they find themselves at is all the same.

With a 6-2 win over the Brewers at Busch Stadium on Tuesday night that extended their franchise-record winning streak to 17 games, the Cardinals have officially, and miraculously, punched their ticket for the postseason, seizing the final Wild Card spot in the National League -- and seizing the umpteenth lease on the season they have been granted.

“Well, it starts with perseverance. I mean, it starts there,” said , whose poetic 17th win of the season in his 17th year with St. Louis led his club to its 17th consecutive victory. “We had to overcome probably the worst baseball I've ever seen a Cardinals team play. We just weren't doing anything right. … It was just understanding that we're a better team than what we were showing and we could go out there and compete with anybody when we play right.

“And that's what we did.”

The walls started to close in with the 14-22 record the Cardinals posted from the start of June to the All-Star break. Around that time, they had lost Jack Flaherty, lost Harrison Bader, lost Miles Mikolas -- and in the process, they lost the momentum and cushion they had built in the first two months.

But they never lost the focus, fueled by an ideal mix of spark-plug youth and elder statesmen who have won before, that has now led them to October.

“People say, ‘How do you stay so optimistic about this team?’ Really, it's not blind optimism,” said manager Mike Shildt. “… But it's an easier team to believe in and have that faith in when I have the privilege of being able to see behind the scenes that dedication that takes place every day and the intentionality of this group together for a common goal -- and that's to celebrate in the very last game of Major League Baseball.”

Still to be determined is who the Cardinals will face in the Wild Card Game on Oct. 6, their opponents either the 101-win Dodgers or 103-win Giants. But the Cards’ offensive display on Tuesday night -- homers from , and , and small ball from , and even, yes, Wainwright -- guaranteed that they have a shot to turn their once rusted-over season into refined hardware.

Until then comes some celebration because of the unlikeliness of this postseason berth. Since playoff odds were first measured in 2014, these Cardinals own the lowest odds at any point in September (2.8 percent on Sept. 7) of a team that went on to make the playoffs. In fact, the 2019 Brewers (5.6 percent) were the only other team which owned odds in the single digits.

“FanGraphs had us at like a negative 400 percent chance to make the playoffs, and we just proved everyone wrong,” Wainwright said. “We're going to try to keep doing that.”

But the postseason is no aberration for this franchise. The Cardinals are entrants into October for the third consecutive year -- each of Shildt’s three full seasons as manager -- and their 15th time in 22 tries this century.

“I'm just thankful to be a part of this team,” said a drenched Arenado, who sent eager vibes around Busch Stadium with his lead-padding home run in the seventh. “And this team is unbelievable. … This is why I'm here.”

No more fitting was the pitcher on the mound, with Wainwright putting what might have been the finishing touches on his immaculate NL Cy Young-caliber season at 40 years of age. With six frames of two-run ball on Tuesday, he led Cardinals pitching this year with over 100 more innings than the runner-up and he led the staff in victories.

The only thing he may be able to top it with: A win in the Wild Card Game.

“We'll have our work cut out for us,” Wainwright said.

It took a winding path to reach the goal the Cardinals accomplished, but it’s not one they are fully content with. The objective in Spring Training, especially after Arenado joined the fold, was the division; they had to settle for delaying the Brewers’ party and then celebrating in front of them on Tuesday. The next objective was to win the World Series, 10 years to the October since their magical 2011 team did the same, riding a September run that carried them to the final out of the season.

This Cardinals team is hotter, hotter than any in the franchise’s history, and than any in the sport. Overcoming the odds and the pitfalls they dug for themselves, they have officially scoured for themselves the opportunity to attain that goal.

All they’ve felt they needed is a chance. There’s no telling what they might do with it now.

“I am an optimist by nature,” Shildt said. “I think they will live longer.”