Without Cards' pitching, there would be no postseason
CHICAGO -- In the last few weeks, a commercial has been airing on Chicago television in which Joe Maddon refers to a chain of liquor stores as the "official champagne supplier of the Chicago Cubs.''
Nothing wrong with that. When you've waited 107 years for a championship, you should wring every drop of enjoyment out of a season like 2015.
But you wonder how many of the 40,962 at Wrigley Field on Sunday even knew that the visiting Cardinals were the team with a certified reason to celebrate, as they very quietly clinched a postseason spot on Saturday night. Arizona's win over San Francisco means that St. Louis is assured of at least the second Wild Card in the National League, making this five years in a row for October baseball at Busch Stadium.
There were, however, no spirits served in Chicago, neither at Wrigley nor the Cardinals' hotel. Players and staff members received a text message from manager Mike Matheny congratulating them, but that was it.
Borrowing a page from former Yankees manager Joe Torre, who hardly ever got worked up until the pennant was theirs, the Cardinals won't celebrate before they have nailed down a third straight NL Central title.
Matheny did pause for a few minutes on Sunday to consider the significance of having advanced into the postseason.
"It's something we're very proud of,'' said the fourth-year manager, who has known nothing but success. "To be one of the teams that is able to go on and keep playing is a great accomplishment. I'm sure we'll acknowledge it some way. It's taken a lot of sacrifice, a lot of work, a lot of fight to get to the point where we can say that.''
It always does, even when you've established a tradition as strong as the one in St. Louis. Winning is never easy, even when a team makes it look automatic.
The Cardinals did that throughout much of this season, even though they didn't have their ace, Adam Wainwright, and have had to grind out runs with Matt Adams and Matt Holliday playing only a combined 116 games. Rookie Randal Grichuk stepped in to become their most dangerous hitter, but a bad arm has sidelined him for most of the last five weeks.
Yet, here are the Cardinals with two weeks left in the regular season, hanging onto first place in a division that features the three best records in the Major Leagues (the Cubs are tied with Kansas City for third at 87-62).
While Matheny had his hands full escaping Wrigley Field without being on the wrong end of a sweep -- it took a strong throw to the plate from Jason Heyward and a four-out save from Trevor Rosenthal for the Cardinals to win, 4-3, on Sunday -- there's going to be a time when he'll have an even greater appreciation for what this team has done.
"I think our club's done a real nice job not putting too much [emphasis] on what we didn't have throughout the season,'' Matheny said. "Really staying true to the fact that we trust what we have, that somebody else is going to step in and do the job. It's something we have to continually realize.
"Maybe later we'll be able to [look] back and maybe think about how we had different people step into crucial spots. You're still seeing a lot of those young players doing what they're doing. It's not a fluke. We just take a great amount of pride, no matter what happens, in getting through a long season and being one of the 10 teams still playing.''
Tommy Pham and Stephen Piscotty, both of whom spent most of the season at Triple-A Memphis, homered off Jon Lester in the first inning on Sunday to give Carlos Martinez the early lead that he and the bullpen clung to fiercely against the Cubs.
This marked the 91st time this season that the Cardinals have held an opponent to three runs or fewer. They've gone 75-16 in those games, as opposed to 18-40 when they allow four runs or fewer.
"They have outstanding pitching,'' Maddon said. "When you get people in scoring position, they make good pitches. I don't think it's any more complicated than that. They have a nice team on the field, a good team on the field, but if you look around the team, I can see a lot of teams that are similar, defensively, fundamentally. It's not like they have everybody beat there.
"They have everybody beat on the mound. Their starters have been outstanding. They've gotten some tremendous work out of their bullpen also. The real secret there lies with their pitching staff.''
Despite Wainwright blowing out his Achilles tendon in April, the Cardinals have ridden their pitching staff to a four-game lead over the Pirates. They have shown a little bit of strain lately, but still have a 3.04 rotation ERA, the best in the Majors.
Martinez, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn and John Lackey have all made at least 28 starts. Jaime Garcia has been excellent (9-5, 2.52 ERA) in 17 times out as the No. 5 starter.
Matheny says there's been nothing "supernatural'' about what his starters are doing, but other teams wonder how the Cardinals just keep getting results from pitchers. There's probably not another organization that could lose an ace and have a season like this.
"I just think that's what we have,'' Matheny said. "The guys stepped up, didn't necessarily find another gear, another level of performance because Adam got hurt. It's the kind of pitchers that they are. It's the kind of pitchers they need to believe they are and continue to build on. …
"It's great to be able to create an atmosphere where guys can thrive, where they can compete. It's just [everybody saying] 'I'm gonna do my job, then hand the ball off and the next guy's going to do his [job].' It's a great way to go about it.''
Pitching depth is something to celebrate, and sooner or later the Cardinals will take a deep breath and do just that.