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Rookie-laden clutch Cards soar to NL pennant in '13

Buoyed by likes of Wacha, Miller, club wins Central, battles Red Sox for six in Series

ST. LOUIS -- It was another year of overwhelming success for the Cardinals, who treated St. Louis to another episode of October baseball while introducing it to an emerging core of new talented players.

What could have been a season defined by key injuries instead became one highlighted by surprise emergences. Though hardly the club general manager John Mozeliak constructed last winter, the Cards added a month to their season with another deep postseason run.

The club eventually fell two wins short of capturing a third World Series championship in eight years, but a look back on the 2013 season reveals much more than a goal left unaccomplished. As everyone prepares to celebrate the start of a new year, let's first take one more chance to highlight the five biggest stories/storylines of the Cardinals' 2013 season.

5. RISP record

Though the Cardinals' power numbers wilted in 2013, the offense was carried by its prolific success hitting in the clutch. The team batted a record .330 with runners in scoring position. Want to put that into context? Consider that no team in the last 40 years hit better than .311 in those situations. The Cards hit their peak of RISP success as they pushed for a division title in September; the club hit .352 with runners in scoring position that month. That helped boost the Cardinals to 17 wins over their final 22 games.

While the collective success was remarkable, so too were some of the individual performances. Had he not gotten hurt in early September, Allen Craig was poised to challenge George Brett's 1980 RISP average of .469, the best among players (minimum 100 plate appearances) over the last four decades. Craig settled for a .454 such average, tops in the Majors. Four other Cardinals regulars -- Matt Holliday (.390), Matt Carpenter (.388), Carlos Beltran (.374) and Yadier Molina (.373) -- had RISP averages among the league's top six.

4. Wacha, Wacha, Wacha!

In May, Michael Wacha became the quickest Cardinals pitcher in 26 years to make his Major League debut after being drafted. By October, he had become a national darling. Wacha's trajectory from college pitcher to touted prospect to top-of-the-rotation arm was as expeditious as any pitcher in recent memory. The Cardinals were careful with Wacha's workload over the summer in a deliberate attempt to save the right-hander for potential late-season use. He rewarded the long-term plan by capping his first big league season with 8 2/3 hitless innings against the Nationals on Sept. 24. His no-hit bid ended on an infield single.

What no one knew at the time was that performance was merely a prelude for an historic October. Wacha extended the Cardinals' season by pitching them to an elimination-game win in Game 4 of the National League Division Series in Pittsburgh. Wacha opened that game with 7 1/3 no-hit innings. The 22-year-old followed that up with a pair of wins (including the series clincher) over the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series. He did not allow a run in 13 2/3 innings and earned series MVP honors. His fourth postseason victory came in Game 2 of the World Series, before Wacha's magical run eventually came to an end in a Game 6 loss. Regardless the ending, it was a coming-out party for a pitcher who now projects to be a key long-term cog in the Cardinals' rotation.

3. Rookie revolution

Just weeks before St. Louis opened spring camp, the organization found itself recognized by multiple publications as boasting the best farm system. What the Cardinals did not anticipate then was that they would have to rely so heavily on so many of their top Minor League players in 2013. By the end of the season, the Cards had called upon 20 rookies to help lead the club to a division title. No team in the Majors used more.

The rookie impact was felt most on the pitching end, where the Cardinals had to compensate for injuries to Chris Carpenter, Jason Motte, Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook. Shelby Miller parlayed an everyday spot in the rotation into a 15-win season. Wacha was the sensation in October, when half of the Cardinals' 12-man pitching staff was rookies. Trevor Rosenthal thrived in a setup role and then dominated in his first taste as closer. Kevin Siegrist, Carlos Martinez and Seth Maness were also especially critical in stabilizing the bullpen. The influx of young talent not only helped the Cardinals overcome injuries in 2013, but it set the club up well moving forward.

2. Pair of MVP pushes

For just the second time since 1968, the Cardinals had two players with top four finishes in the NL Most Valuable Player race. Yadier Molina improved one spot from his fourth-place finish in 2012. The bigger surprise was who finished behind him and in the fourth spot this year. Matt Carpenter went from role player to All-Star in a year's time, all while learning a new position. He worked daily at second base all offseason to get himself ready for the everyday opportunity. Once Carpenter won the job, he never looked back. He had one of the best offensive years by a second baseman in Cardinals history and finished tops in the Majors in hits (199), multihit games (63), runs scored (126) and doubles (55). Those 55 doubles broke Stan Musial's franchise record for most by a left-handed hitter. Carpenter also emerged as the team's answer in the leadoff spot.

Molina's standout season further cemented his place as the game's best backstop. He's widely considered the gold standard defensively at that position, and he was recognized as such with his sixth straight NL Gold Glove Award. The guidance Molina provided to a young pitching staff was incredible, and their faith in him eased the transition. Molina continued to be an asset on offense, too, filling a middle-of-the-order spot, hitting .373 with runners in scoring position, setting a franchise record for doubles (44) by a catcher, and finishing fourth in the NL with a .319 batting average.

1. Division supremacy and World Series run

Despite deep postseason runs in 2011 and '12, the Cardinals entered this past year having not finished as NL Central champs since 2009. That drought ended with a 7-0 win over the Cubs on Sept. 27. The Cardinals would go on to win the division by three games. After jockeying for first place with the Pirates for much of the second half, the Cards took hold of the division during the second week of September. A three-game sweep of the Pirates propelled the Cardinals into first place, and the team never did fall from that top spot again. St. Louis closed out the season with a 17-5 run.

The division title was just the start for this club. The Cardinals held off the Pirates (again) to win the NLDS in five games. A six-game NLCS victory over the Dodgers followed. That sent the Cardinals back to the World Series for the fourth time since 2004. The Red Sox became the first team to capture three championships this century, but that won't stop the Cards from opening 2014 with the distinction of being NL defending champs.

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, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter