Last to clinch, Cards have chance to defend title

Last to clinch, Cards have chance to defend title

ST. LOUIS -- A year that began as one of transition in St. Louis turns to October with all feeling familiar.

No matter that Tony La Russa had been feted off into retirement. Or that Albert Pujols drew his payday by going out West. Or that Dave Duncan needed to give up his second love to tend to his first.

The organization moved on, too, and successfully so, by all measures, given what it has already accomplished. Thanks to the Giants' 4-3 victory over the Dodgers late Tuesday night, the 2011 world champions have earned the chance to defend.

"All you could really ask for when the season starts," Daniel Descalso said, "is to just have a chance to play in October."

One year after needing all 162 games to sneak past the Braves and grab the final ticket to the playoffs, the Cardinals became the first National League beneficiary of the new second Wild Card. Ironically enough, it earns them a chance to play Atlanta, the team they beat out last year without a head-to-head matchup.

"We're the last one in, but we have the opportunity to do something special," Chris Carpenter said after the Cardinals' late-night celebration. "I think with the way our ballclub is playing right now, we have a chance to move on. The biggest game is going to be Friday night, no question about it, against Atlanta. Hopefully we can come out and do the things we have been doing for the last few weeks and beat them."

This is a Cardinals franchise not foreign to postseason appearances, having been there now nine of the last 13 years. Mike Matheny played on three of those playoff clubs. Now, to close out his rookie season at the helm, he'll get the chance to manage one.

Matheny's first chore was to name a starter for Friday's winner-move-on game. He went with 16-game winner Kyle Lohse.

"What is there not to like about him?" Matheny said of Lohse. "What more could he do? It's kind of lined up that way, and we have had that in line here for a while."

This is not, however, a manager, a city or a team satisfied with simply getting this far. There is a guarantee of only one playoff game -- that to be played in Atlanta on Friday -- but the expectation of a much deeper run.

Despite the loss of several St. Louis staples in the immediate months after Allen Craig gloved the final out of the 2011 World Series, the Cardinals entered 2012 poised -- and seemingly built -- to contend again. Pujols was gone, but Carlos Beltran was in. Adam Wainwright was back. Craig and David Freese and Jon Jay and Lance Lynn appeared positioned to take leaps forward.

All did, and in big ways.

The Cardinals have battled injury issues for the majority of the year, beginning in March, when Carpenter's season was cast into doubt. Lance Berkman appeared in only 31 games. Jaime Garcia sat out with an arm injury for more than two months. Craig spent six weeks on the DL, and shortstop Rafael Furcal is still there.

But sufficient depth helped the club weather it all.

"You just look back historically, it's hard after winning a World Series to get into the playoffs," said Cardinals chief executive officer Bill DeWitt. "For this team to do it, is something, I think. It's a great accomplishment."

The fact that St. Louis has not endured a losing streak of more than five games is largely a testament to the starting pitching, which aside from a rocky few weeks in May, has had few sustained hiccups.

On the other side is the offense, which, built behind All-Stars, has surprisingly had regular issues manufacturing runs. It's an issue that explains why the Cardinals have also not enjoyed a winning streak of more than five games.

But the Cardinals have reeled off 11 wins in their last 15 games to create separation for that second Wild Card. And with the starting pitchers collectively finding their stride lately, the club likes how it is positioned.

"The guys have kicked it into gear right now when they needed to," Matheny said, "and our success begins and ends with our starting pitching."

Friday's Wild Card game will be a test of strength and strategy. Lohse will take the mound for St. Louis, which can back him with extra relievers and bench players. The uniqueness of a one-game series allows for such unique roster construction.

The offense should be relatively healthy by then, as well. With Wednesday's outcome no longer significant, Matheny can take advantage of the opportunity to rest any of his starting position players.

It also means Wainwright won't have to be used in the final game of the season. Instead, the Cardinals can keep him open as an option to start Game 1 of the Division Series.

As for Matheny, he's now anticipating another managerial first. He's not been immune from criticism this year, though he has noted that he'd gladly shoulder it if it means his players don't have to. But the glare will be brighter in October. The decisions will carry more weight. The emotions could span the extremes.

And yet, he seems hardly overwhelmed at the prospect of it all. And neither is this club. The taste of last October is still strong enough to remind the Cardinals of what could be again.

"It's hard to get my head around," said Matheny, wearing an official playoff hat and T-shirt as he spoke to the media in the early-morning hours. "I would have felt if we weren't in this spot that it would be really hard to handle, because it's such a good team, such a good group of guys."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.