As the regular season winds down, the Cardinals will need a clutch performance or three to make the playoffs.
The history of the St. Louis Cardinals is littered with players who have elevated their games when the stakes were highest. From Bob Gibson pitching three complete games in the World Series to the Wizard making folks go crazy to Chris Carpenter outdueling Roy Halladay, countless Cardinals have etched their places in baseball lore by delivering when it mattered most.
This year’s group of Cardinals is, on the surface, fairly unremarkable. They’re 5-5 in their last 10 games, 11-11 in their last 22, and 17-17 in their last 34. They haven’t pulled away from the New York Mets or the San Francisco Giants in the Wild Card race because they haven’t gotten the types of performances that can jump-start a run. The Cardinals haven’t been bad, but they haven’t been good either.
Unfortunately, it’s getting to the time where .500 ball won’t cut it anymore. If the Cardinals want to play beyond the eight regular season games remaining, it will of course take a total team effort. But sometimes, just one player stepping up his game can be enough to inspire the rest of the team. Who might that player be for the Cardinals?
Ho, hum, another brilliant season from Carpenter. Carpenter has actually struggled of late, but when he’s hot, he’s unstoppable, an extra-base-hit machine out of the leadoff spot. But his candidacy for October hero has more to do with his nature as a player: stoic, matter-of-fact, and prepared. Carpenter never lets the moment overwhelm him. I mean, just look at this:
Incredible. Carpenter takes a 2-2 pitch from the best pitcher on the planet and serves it with authority in the gap to take the lead. Just listen to the Dodger Stadium crowd. They’re alive, and then they’re dead silent.
Believe it or not, Yadi is having his finest offensive campaign since the Cardinals last reached the World Series in 2013. He’s doing a little bit of everything, hitting for average, reaching base, and roping doubles, with a season slash line of .300/.354/.413/.767. What’s even more impressive is how consistently excellent he’s been since the All-Star Break. After a scorching .341 start in April, Molina cooled down, hitting just .222 from May to June. Since then, he’s been as good as it gets: .329 with an .875 OPS in July, .337 with an .850 OPS in August, and .344 with an .876 OPS in September. The heart and soul of St. Louis, Yadi has already had magnificent moments in the clutch; we all remember his home run in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, on the road no less. The fiery leader needs to ignite this team before it sleepwalks its way out of the playoffs.
After Trevor Rosenthal’s well-documented early-season blowups, it would have been crazy to think the Cardinals could still find themselves with an elite closer, yet they may have actually upgraded. Oh, with a 1.79 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and 5.44 K/BB, is arguably the National League’s best reliever. At the least, he’s on the very short list alongside the Chicago Cubs’ Aroldis Chapman and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen. Unlike those guys, though, Oh is a multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen. He’s come in for two innings five times this season, including three times since August, and hasn’t allowed a run in any of those appearances. If manager Mike Matheny is willing to use Oh liberally these final weeks, as he has thus far this season, Oh can make a real difference in October, when games are about grabbing a lead and counting down outs.
He’s too young, you say. Experience is key in a pennant race, you say. That is true; experience does help. But I urge you to look no further than the the last rookie A. Reyes employed by the Cardinals. Ten years ago, Anthony Reyes started Game 1 of the World Series for the Cardinals, at one point retiring 17 straight batters in a dominant performance. This year’s newbie, Alex, has the stuff to be that kind of dominant force down the stretch. He has just one more start lined up in the regular season–Thursday night at Busch Stadium versus the Reds–but will be a tempting option for the Wild Card Game or any potential tiebreakers. A 100-mile-per-hour fastball and a wipeout curve play well at any age, and if Reyes can become Matheny’s go-to option in October, he could quickly become a fan favorite.
Reyes brings us to one Cardinal who’s already done it as a rookie. Waino famously took over as the Redbirds’ closer in 2006, freezing Carlos Beltran in Game 7 of the NLCS before striking out Brandon Inge to start the celebrations that year. Fast-forward 10 years and Wainwright–can you believe he’s 35 already?–is still right in the thick of the action as the postseason nears. Wainwright would be the first to tell you he’s had a miserable year, pitching to a 4.57 ERA. His return from the injury that kept him out of most of the 2015 season hasn’t been pretty, as he actually leads the NL in hits and earned runs allowed. Still, every Cardinals fan knows what’s possible when he’s on the mound. Remember, Chris Carpenter–then 36–had a 4.73 in seven starts from August 1 to September 2 before reverting to ace form to lead the Cardinals through the postseason in 2011. And hey, at least if Wainwright’s arm isn’t what it once was, there’s always his bat.
.224/.250/.483, 89 wRC+
.232/.305/.325, 71 wRC+
Top is Adam Wainwright, bottom is Jason Heyward. #STLCards
— CardsBlog.com (@cardsblog) September 21, 2016
So who will it be?
The beauty of a pennant race is that the hero will likely be none of the players on this list. After all, who would have expected David Freese to do, well, you-know-what in 2011? So dig in, Cardinals fans, because now, every pitch matters. If you miss one, you might just miss the heroics.
Image Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports