Injuries no match for Cards' season-long depth

Talented home-grown core helps club overcome loss of Carpenter, Motte, Craig

September 27th, 2013

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals built their 2013 club with every intention to contend and every expectation that they'd be spraying champagne in September. The thrill of the latter was experienced on Friday night after St. Louis clinched the National League Central with its 7-0 win over the Cubs at Busch Stadium.

How the Cardinals navigated to the division title, though, hardly stayed to script.

The Cards were to feature a rotation built on experience, and yet they head to the postseason with one that includes only one pitcher with more than three years of service time. The Cardinals planned to follow the same late-innings formula with the bullpen that worked so well in 2012, but they're now establishing their fourth closer of the season. He is one of six rookie relievers on the roster.

The Cardinals lost an ace, a shortstop and a closer before even getting to Opening Day. They were down two more starting pitchers in May. Their cleanup hitter hasn't played in three weeks and may not for at least three more.

And yet there they were on Friday night, soaking the Busch Stadium home clubhouse in celebration, wearing T-shirts that read "We Own The Central" and turning their attention to loftier October aspirations.

"Obviously, the book is not over, but I think it's been a year of adversity in so many ways," general manager John Mozeliak said. "Injuries plagued us early. A lot of younger players who weren't household names or weren't really recognized have stepped up to contribute. It is a great compliment to this club to be at this point and do it in a way that I don't think a lot of people thought might happen back in March."

How the Cardinals got here may have been surprising, but that they did is becoming the expected. This is the organization's seventh division title since 2000, its 10th postseason berth in that same span. Two of the Cardinals' 11 World Series championships have come since the century turned.

"This organization is all about winning," right-hander Seth Maness said. "When you throw the uniform on, you have one purpose, and that's to get a win. There is no settling for mediocrity. There is an expectation that you come in, play at a high level and compete."

The Cardinals, based on multiple preseason publications, came into the season boasting baseball's best farm system. They thought that would be a luxury. Turns out, it would be a need.

Helping carry the Cardinals back into the postseason for a third straight year were 20 rookies, 12 of whom had never appeared in the Major Leagues before 2013. The group covered 38 percent of the team's innings, totaled 36 wins and drove in 93 runs.

Those contributions helped the Cardinals tread through the Spring Training losses of Chris Carpenter, Jason Motte and Rafael Furcal, and the in-season losses of Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook and, most recently, Allen Craig.

"They're coming up here hungry," ace Adam Wainwright said. "They're coming up here, and they're not scared. They're excited to pitch in games, and they're working their tails off."

Of the six prospects to dent's preseason Top Prospects list, five will likely to be on the Cardinals' playoff roster. The other, Oscar Taveras, would have been here had a right ankle injury not prematurely ended his season.

"We have had great young prospects who have filled their spots and done great," principal owner Bill DeWitt said. "We knew we had the talent, but until they stepped in and do the job, you never know."

The Cardinals are still waiting for their NL Division Series opponent to be finalized. If they beat out the Braves for the NL's best record, they'll face the winner of Tuesday's NL Wild Card Game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. If St. Louis has the NL's second-best record, it will host the Dodgers beginning on Thursday. The Cards and Braves entered play on Saturday with identical 95-65 records, but Atlanta took the season series, winning four of seven games.

Regardless the matchup, the Cardinals will enter October with adversity still left to leap. Mozeliak confirmed on Friday that the earliest Craig -- the Majors' best hitter (.454 average) with runners in scoring position -- could return from a left foot sprain would be the NL Championship Series.

Rookie Matt Adams will remain Craig's fill-in at first and in the cleanup spot.

"That's the coolest thing about this team -- we're so deep, and we all support each other," Craig said. "We have a great team, and I'm going to be supportive and rooting for everybody to extend the season as long as possible so I can get back out there."

In the bullpen, rookie Trevor Rosenthal, who pitched the final inning on Friday, has been prepped to serve as a closer, now that 37-save right-hander Edward Mujica has faltered. Three of Rosenthal's setup men -- Maness, Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist -- have never pitched in a postseason game.

The Cardinals' reliance on pushing rookies into prominent roles worked because of the clubhouse culture established by the veterans. Those like Wainwright, Carpenter, Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina invested heavily in ensuring each new arrival felt comfortable and fit in.

Now, as a unit, they begin the pursuit of another deep October run.

"These guys trust in each other. They have faith in each other," manager Mike Matheny said. "I think that explains the young players, a number of them who have come in, why they've been able to have success. There's not a better atmosphere that I've ever seen for a young player. This year was a great test to how that culture works."