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Despite changes, Cards' winning ways continued

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals had little time to savor their 2011 World Series championship before changes began to rock the organization's core. First to go was manager Tony La Russa, just days after the Fall Classic ended. Then Albert Pujols. Then pitching coach Dave Duncan.

With the departures, came additions -- most notably new manager Mike Matheny and outfielder Carlos Beltran -- but also questions, including this most pressing one: How seriously could a team undergoing so many internal changes compete for a second World Series crown?

Those who returned in 2012, along with a few new faces, made it their mission in Spring Training to shift the focus from who wasn't there to who was. And given the season that followed, that objective was met.

Indeed, the Cardinals dealt with inconsistency and adversity, a large dose of the latter, in particular. But the club rode the steadiness of its new manager to a second-place finish in the division and a spot in the postseason. Once there, the team won seven games, falling only one victory short of playing in the World Series for a second straight season.

It was a season of both transition and emergence, and here is a look back at the year's five biggest stories and storylines:

5. Chris Carpenter goes down in Spring Training, makes unexpected September return

Still uncertain as to how Adam Wainwright would respond after a season lost to injury, the Cardinals were dealt a serious blow just days into Spring Training when Carpenter had to halt his throwing program. The news worsened when, within weeks, it was determined that the veteran right-hander would be lost indefinitely.

After starting and stopping his throwing program again in June, Carpenter underwent thoracic outlet surgery in mid-July. The procedure was supposed to be season-ending.

Determined, however, to prove he would be healthy for 2013, Carpenter pushed himself in the two months that followed and ended up making an unexpected return to the mound. He pitched three times during the regular season and made another three starts in the postseason.

While Carpenter wasn't at his sharpest, his return was crucial in helping fill a rotation that had to deal with late-season injuries to Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia.

4. Crop of young pitching rises to Majors and enjoys immediate success

Carpenter's spring injury created a rotation opening for Lance Lynn, who was the first of several young pitchers to make a substantial impact for the Cardinals. Lynn became a first-time All-Star and finished an 18-game winner while pitching 176 innings in his first full season in the Majors.

He was joined in the rotation midseason by Joe Kelly, who, too, exceeded initial expectations. Promoted to St. Louis when Garcia got hurt, Kelly helped the Cards as both a starter and reliever. He shined brightest in the postseason.

A surprise call-up from Double-A in July, Trevor Rosenthal was dominating in the 'pen by the end of the season. He hit 99 mph and higher on the radar gun with regularity, giving the Cardinals a glimpse of a potential future impact closer.

Then there was Shelby Miller, thought to be the most promising of the bunch of young arms. Triple-A struggles stalled his ascension in 2012, but Miller showed flashes of his potential during his brief time with the club. This pitching depth sets the Cardinals up quite well for the long term.

3. Pete Kozma caps historic Division Series comeback

The Cardinals' postseason hopes took a huge hit in late August, when Rafael Furcal came off the field at Nationals Park having just suffered an elbow tear. How fitting it was, then, that in the club's return trip to Washington during the postseason that Kozma -- a former first-round pick who, after being nearly removed from the team's 40-man roster during the summer, took over as the Cardinals' starting shortstop for Furcal -- delivered the defining hit in a thrilling Game 5 of the Division Series.

Down 6-0 by the end of the third inning in a win-or-go home game, the Cardinals pecked away at the lead for the next several innings. The club entered the ninth trailing by two and strung together a four-run rally after the Nationals had come within one strike of advancing to the next postseason round. A two-run single by Daniel Descalso tied the game, and Kozma's subsequent two-run single won it.

It marked the largest comeback in a winner-take-all game in postseason history.

2. Yadier Molina signs contract extension, then thrives

Less than three months removed from watching Pujols walk away as a free agent, the Cardinals ensured that Molina would not be doing the same a year later. The organization and Molina agreed to a five-year, $75 million contract extension in late February, thereby removing Molina's name from the list of upcoming offseason free agents.

The extension includes an option year, as well, meaning it could keep Molina in St. Louis through the 2018 season.

Once secure for the long term, Molina went about having a career season in 2012. He continued to shine defensively, collecting his fifth Rawlings Gold Glove Award and second straight Platinum Glove at season's end. Molina has made at least 130 starts behind the plate four straight years.

He also had a standout year at the plate. Molina set career highs in batting average (.315), home runs (22), RBIs (76), and on-base percentage (.373). He was recognized for it all with a fourth-place finish in the voting for the National League's Most Valuable Player award.

1. Cardinals advance to within one game of National League pennant

Without a former superstar first baseman and future Hall-of-Fame manager, the Cardinals still snuck into the playoffs and became a formidable club to face once there. Matheny led the team to an 88-win season that was good enough to secure the National League's second Wild Card berth.

The Cardinals then defeated Atlanta and Washington on their way to a League Championship meeting with the Giants. The club jumped to a 3-1 series lead, but fell a win short of a return visit to the World Series.

After a Game 4 victory, the offense went silent and the starting pitching scuffled, giving San Francisco the opening it needed to capture the series. The Cardinals never led at any point during those last three games and were outscored, 20-1. Still, once the disappointment wore off, all involved counted the 2012 season as a success.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.
Read More: St. Louis Cardinals, Chris Carpenter, Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, Lance Lynn, Pete Kozma, Yadier Molina