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Overcoming obstacles key to Cards' 2012 season

ST. LOUIS -- Highlighting accomplishment in the immediate aftermath of a three-game skid that left the Cardinals one win short of advancing to the World Series could have come across as forced, as a way to try to sugarcoat the bitter taste of disappointment.

But as several players spoke about the goal left unachieved at AT&T Park on Monday night, they, too, reflected on a season defined by surprise emergences and smooth transitions.

Eventually that -- and not their National League Championship Series collapse -- will come to define the Cardinals' 2012 season, one that began with a plethora of questions. Such as ...

How would the organization fare sans Tony La Russa, Albert Pujols and Dave Duncan? Would age and susceptibility to injury be this club's downfall? Could young core pieces stay healthy and step forward? And how close could the 2011 World Series champions come to defending that title?

Asked for his takeaway from the season, general manager John Mozeliak said he had two.

"One is the ability to have [first-year] manager [Mike Matheny] step up and show that he is a Major League manager," Mozeliak said. "And two, I think the story going into the season was a little bit about our vulnerability with age and with medical [issues]. Some of that proved to be true, but what also came of that, which is what I'll point to, is the fact that we had a lot of young players step up and perform at a high level.

"So I think when you look at this organization and our club moving forward, there's a lot to be optimistic with because of how these young guys performed."

The Cardinals began the year strong, racing out to a 20-11 record, a span in which little went wrong. In mid-May, though, the starting pitching hit a collective lull, and the offense was too inconsistent to compensate. The bullpen, an anticipated strength going into the season, also began to show severe cracks. And injuries became an issue.

The rotation made a rebound, but the summer months were hardly smooth sailing. The Cardinals' on-and-off offense continued to give fits, and the club went through a carousel of arms to try to steady the bullpen.

Eventually, the right mix was found, led by Trade Deadline acquisition Edward Mujica. The Cards got healthy and went on a late-season run, going from Sept. 15 to the end of the regular season without losing consecutive games. That surge gave the Cardinals the NL's second Wild Card berth.

The run continued until the Giants eliminated the Cardinals in the seventh game of the NL Championship Series.

"What I've learned is [that] we've got a special group of players over on our side who have overcome a lot of obstacles and who did a lot of things that people didn't think they could do," Matheny said after the Game 7 loss. "And there's quite a bit to be excited about if you're a St. Louis Cardinals fan."

Record: 88-74, second in NL Central; second Wild Card recipient

Defining moment: It came on Oct. 12, with a sellout crowd of Nationals fans preparing for a raucous celebration in the nation's capital. The Cardinals, however, put that celebration on pause with the largest comeback ever in a winner-take-all postseason game. Erasing an early six-run deficit, the Cards stunned the Nationals with a 9-7 victory, with four runs capping a two-out, ninth-inning rally. The win sent St. Louis to the NLCS and also reflected the never-give-in mentality that the club carried throughout a season of adversity.

What went right: The offense, though it disappeared at critical times, still finished as one of the most prolific in the league. Carlos Beltran provided tremendous first-half production, and Allen Craig, once healthy, became one of the best run-producers in the league. Yadier Molina was consistent from start to finish, lifting his offensive game to another level and ensuring he'd be considered in the MVP race. ... The lone Trade Deadline acquisition was deemed by some as underwhelming, but Mujica's arrival signaled stability for the bullpen, as he filled a gaping seventh-inning hole. ... That stability brought even more opportunities for Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte, both of whom had breakout years in defined roles. Motte tied for the league lead with 42 saves and Boggs led the NL in holds, affirming the long-held belief that his talent should play well in a late-inning role. ... The rotation weathered the loss of Chris Carpenter thanks to the emergence of Lance Lynn. Joe Kelly's arrival helped cover for Jaime Garcia's time out with a shoulder injury. Kyle Lohse had a career year, and Adam Wainwright took on a full load in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. ... Shedding any pressure that might come from following La Russa, Matheny was lauded for his leadership ability in his debut season as the team's manager.

What went wrong: As unstoppable as the Cards' offense could be, it was also, at times, unable to start. That hot-and-cold nature was the reason why several strong pitching performances were wasted, and it was also a factor in the team's subpar record in close games. The Cardinals went 21-26 in games decided by one run. ... Concern about injuries was prevalent going into the season, and St. Louis did deal with plenty. Carpenter was sidelined until September with a nerve condition. Lance Berkman was limited to 81 at-bats, mostly because of knee problems. Rafael Furcal was lost at a critical time, and Kyle McClellan hardly had time to contribute before being shut down. St. Louis moved a player to the disabled list 14 times during the season. That also doesn't account for the nagging issues Beltran and Matt Holliday played through. ... Weakened partially because of those injury issues, the bench didn't prove to be too formidable. Aside from Matt Carpenter's strong season, St. Louis got little sustained production from its reserves. ... Until the arrival of Mujica, the bullpen had serious issues bridging games to the eighth inning, largely because of a lack of strong left-handed relief.

Biggest surprise: With injuries brought emergences, and the Cardinals had plenty. It began with Lynn, who led the staff with 18 wins in his first full season with the club. Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal shined on the postseason stage, giving the Cards a glimpse of a bright future. Shelby Miller, in limited exposure, also had some early success. Jon Jay found a fit as the starting center fielder, and Matt Carpenter showcased the fruits of his hard work to become more versatile.

With so much home-grown talent, the Cardinals believe themselves set up well for the future.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.
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