St. Louis Cardinals continue showing why the 'Cardinal Way' really works
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By MATT MUSICO
We can be sure of just a few things in life: death, taxes and the St. Louis Cardinals being really good at baseball.
As a true fan of the game, one has to appreciate the organization's consistent success – specifically since the turn of the century. However, unless you're a St. Louis fan, it's pretty annoying to see them fighting for the National League pennant on an annual basis.
MLB teams overcome obstacles to post impressive win-loss records all the time. In 2015, the Cardinals experienced some huge injuries to important players, but manager Mike Matheny navigated through it seamlessly. Starting position players like Matt Adams and Matt Holiday were expected to be St. Louis' main source of power. They've combined for just nine home runs, 59 RBI and 130 games played entering action on October 1.
Meanwhile, Adam Wainwright was supposed to lead a young pitching staff back to the postseason, but he only threw 25 innings before getting activated off the disabled list this week.
This all spells disaster for a team with pennant-winning aspirations, doesn't it? Very few squads overcome obstacles like these to be successful at all, let alone be one of the best teams in the league. However, that's exactly what the Cardinals have done, and they're closing in on home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with an MLB-best 100-59 record.
Fighting through these roadblocks was supposed to be hard, but they made it look easy. When key players went down with injuries, others stepped up. Players that fans fantasy baseball players never heard of before, like Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham and Stephen Piscotty, suddenly became integral pieces to Matheny's lineup.
Only the Toronto Blue Jays (+229) have a better run differential number than St. Louis (+134), yet the Cardinals aren't ranked near the top in any important offensive metric. So, what was the key? It was the pitching – even without Wainwright leading the way.
The starting rotation's 2.98 ERA is the best in the MLB, while the bullpen has the third-lowest ERA (2.77) and the most saves (62) in baseball. As a staff, their 3.48 FIP and 3.73 xFIP both rank in the top-10.
With Waino on the sidelines, a veteran needed to step up and eat innings, which is exactly what John Lackey (13-9 record, 2.69 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 171 strikeouts in 214 IP) has done. Lance Lynn has been hot-and-cold at certain points throughout the year, but the extraordinary performances from young hurlers like Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez have been the x-factor.
So, the pitching and defense have done most of the work, while the offense does just enough to help secure a victory. It's a good philosophy for teams to have. The Cardinals have been doing it for years, the San Francisco Giants had the same blueprint during their three recent World Series title runs, and the New York Mets rebuilt their entire organization around top-tier pitching.
We hear about the "Cardinal Way" all the time, and if you're not a Cardinals fan, you're likely sick of it and convinced it's not real. Unfortunately, it is and more organizations are trying to emulate it, including the Chicago Cubs. Just to get some confirmation from a source outside of St. Louis, I asked Cubs beat writer from the Daily Herald, Bruce Miles, if the "Cardinal Way" is a real thing and if it's actually helping:
"The 'Cardinal Way' is a real thing. The amazing thing about them is that they lose key players to injury, yet never seem to skip a beat. A lot of this is a credit to their scouting and development people. I've talked to Cardinals people about this, and they feel that they draft and develop baseball talent and also strong people as well. The Cubs are trying to do something similar, and the early stages look good for it working."
It sure is – in fact, it appears that most of the NL Central is taking notice and having success, judging by what both the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates are doing.
After 20 consecutive years of losing, Pittsburgh has played consistently competitive baseball at PNC Park over the past three seasons. As for Chicago, we all know they haven't won a World Series since 1908, but this is also the first time they've enjoyed a winning season since 2009.
As it currently stands, Pittsburgh and Chicago have the second- and third-best records in the National League, respectively. If they resided in the NL East or NL West, they'd each have a somewhat comfortable divisional lead. However, they're stuck in the NL Central with the Cardinals.
Instead of heading straight into an NLDS matchup, they'll be forced to play each other in a winner-take-all Wild Card game. That seems awfully frustrating for both fan bases, but Miles told me the vibe in Chicago's clubhouse is very good, and for a few concrete reasons:
"Much of it [the vibe] is due to the tone set by manager Joe Maddon. He has treated each game as no more important than any other game this season. That way, he says, when the Cubs do get to October, they will not be overwhelmed by playoff games.
"The Cubs also have strong veteran leaders, such as David Ross and Jon Lester, both of whom have played on championship teams. They set good examples and don't seem to get too high or too low. The Cubs' young players also seem unaffected by pennant-race pressure. That goes back to the first question of drafting and developing strong personalities as well as good baseball players."
Miles told me that the Cubs feel as though they can beat whomever they face in the playoffs, and we'll soon find that out. What we can be sure of is the Cardinals will be ready and waiting, no matter what other obstacles they will be forced to face.
We hear the "next man up" phrase so often in clubhouses and locker rooms today that it's become such a cliché. FanDuel's own Will Carroll shared with us the phrase usually means in a recent tweet (he's talking about football, but it still applies):
Despite having just the 13th-strongest farm system heading into 2015 according to ESPN's Keith Law, they've found value and contributions from sources few were expecting them to find it from. With an Opening Day payroll of just under $121 million, they aren't even among the MLB's top-10 biggest spenders.
Don't forget, this is a team that refused to overpay for Albert Pujols prior to the 2012 season, and just weeks after he led them to a World Series title (and that's worked out quite nicely so far). Why? Yes, the "Cardinal Way."
It's rare for an organization to truly have a top-down philosophy that everyone buys into. As Miles said, it starts right at the beginning – from scouting and drafting to developing these guys into the types of ballplayers they know will help the organization get better at the end of the day. This isn't anything new, either. Sure, this is the fifth consecutive year they've qualified for the postseason, but the new millennium has been just as kind to St. Louis as the previous one.
Since 2000, they've clinched a postseason berth 12 times, have reached at least the NLCS on nine different occasions and have won two World Series titles.
When it comes to the MLB's version of the final four, the Cardinals are normally one of the teams occupying a spot, and it's frustrating for rival organizations who don't experience on-field success nearly as often.
And for fans who pledge their allegiance to a team outside the NL Central, they'd just like to see different teams fight for a chance to play in the World Series. Seeing St. Louis there every year is awfully maddening. I can attest to that, because I almost never pick the Cardinals to go deep in the playoffs. It's mostly wishful thinking, but they always are one of the teams fighting to cross the finish line, whether we want them to be or not.
Can they reach the NLCS for the fifth consecutive season? Only time will tell. Wainwright has recently been cleared to resume baseball activity, which will give the pitching staff a huge boost. However, they will be without Martinez (shoulder sprain) and possibly Molina, who has torn a ligament in his thumb. Piscotty is now on the shelf at least for the time being after a nasty collision on Monday night.
Missing these players would be a big blow to Matheny's postseason roster.
Either way, it looks like the next man will have to step up and make something happen. As Adams said during the Cardinals' playoff run last October, that's the kind of philosophy preached from day one:
"The mentality is a never-give-up mentality," said Adams. "I came up with Shelby [Miller] in the Minor Leagues. We got to Spring Training, and they hammered it into us that this organization likes to win and knows it can win."
In essence, don't bet against the Cardinals, even if they're looking down and out. And if your favorite team hasn't formed their own adaptation of the "Cardinal Way" yet, they should do it immediately.
Why? Because whether you love it, hate it or think it's just too boring, it works. And winning year-in and year-out is never boring. Just ask the Cardinals.
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