Ten reasons Cardinals reached postseason

Ten reasons Cardinals reached postseason

Ten reasons Cardinals reached postseason
ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals are no stranger to postseason baseball, having advanced to the playoffs now for the ninth time since the turn of the century. But each of those winning clubs had its own distinct persona, a makeup different from the others.

The same, of course, goes for the 2012 bunch.

The managerial transition wasn't entirely seamless, and the absence of timely hitting for long periods became maddening. But enough came together for the Cardinals to ensure that they'll be playing at least one game after 20 other teams head home until 2013.

Here is a look at 10 things, in no particular order, that went right, allowing the 2011 World Series champions to get a chance to defend that title:

The rotation: Led by a career year from Kyle Lohse, the Cardinals' starting staff finished the 2012 regular season as one of the best in the National League. There are four 13-game winners in the group, including first-year starter Lance Lynn, who surpassed expectations with the job he did stepping in for Chris Carpenter. Lohse had a year that will land him NL Cy Young votes. Adam Wainwright came back from Tommy John surgery and, after some early bumps, settled in well. Jake Westbrook was steady until getting hurt late, and at that point, the rotation was boosted by Carpenter's unexpected return.

Molina's career year: Long lauded as one of the baseball's best defensive catchers, Molina made huge strides on the offensive end. He finished the season among the league leaders in average and surpassed the 20-homer mark for the first time in his career. None of this has taken away from what Molina does behind the plate, either. With his game never having been more complete, Molina is expected to be among the top vote-getters in for the NL MVP Award.

Mike Matheny: Matheny seemed to have so much working against him from the start. Here he was with no managerial experience, taking over a World Series championship club that had just been led by Tony La Russa, one of the winningest managers of all time. Matheny endured a learning curve and heard sufficient criticism along the way, but in a sport where individuals are judged on performance, he did guide this club back to the postseason. Players have lauded Matheny's leadership skills since the day he took over for La Russa.

The trade: The deal seemed underwhelming at the time, but acquiring Edward Mujica on July 31 solidified the Cardinals' bullpen in a big way. It gave Matheny a stopgap for the seventh inning, which had been the point where so many games had crumbled during the first four months of the season. Mujica, who began the year with the Marlins, began his tenure in St. Louis with 17 scoreless innings.

Stable late-inning relief: In his first season as the Cardinals' defined closer, Jason Motte became just the fourth pitcher in Cardinals history to save 40 games in a season, finishing with 42 in 49 opportunities. The Cards opened the season unsure of who would cover the eighth inning, but Mitchell Boggs proved early that he was ready to take those reins. Boggs appeared in more games than anyone else in the Cardinals' bullpen and made 23 straight scoreless appearances at one point. He led the NL in holds.

A push by the prospects: The Cardinals' organizational depth was tested early by injuries, and several young players stepped up in big ways. Joe Kelly spent nearly three months in the starting rotation and never looked overmatched. Matt Carpenter, in his first full season in the Majors, was a frequent spark as an infield fill-in. Pete Kozma handled shortstop duties with little trouble when Rafael Furcal went down, and several rookie relievers filled holes in the bullpen.

No Pujols, no problem: As much as the Cardinals' hot-and-cold offense could give one fits, the overall numbers were among the best in the league at season's end. After watching Albert Pujols walk away over the offseason, the club still pieced together an offense that spent the majority of the season leading the NL in batting average and runs scored. The Cardinals had five players hit at least 20 homers for the first time in franchise history and received terrific first-half contributions from Carlos Beltran, who was signed as a direct result of Pujols' departure.

Allen Craig: Though seemingly without a spot at the start of the season, Craig knew that if he hit, the Cardinals would find a place for him to play. Turns out Lance Berkman spent most of the year on the disabled list, giving Craig the opening he needed in order to get everyday at-bats. Craig then thrived. He became the team's cleanup hitter and batted nearly .400 with runners in scoring position. He threatened to reach the 100-RBI mark as well, even though he missed six weeks due to injury.

Steps forward from homegrown talent: Craig fits in this category, as do Jon Jay and David Freese. Jay took advantage of the chance to be the team's starting center fielder and starred. He didn't commit an error and provided regular contributions to highlight reels. Expect Jay to get consideration for a Rawlings NL Gold Glove Award. Freese shed the injury-prone label that had trailed him since his arrival and built off his big October by playing in more than 140 games. He made an All-Star team for the first time and was one of the five on the team to hit 20 home runs.

The division factor: By winning two of their last three games of the season against visiting Cincinnati, the Cardinals had 45 wins against NL Central opponents. Though they didn't dominate all division opponents, the Cards did beat up on the Astros and Cubs, the Central's two bottom dwellers, going a combined 21-11 against those two clubs. While the Astros were picked on by everyone in the division, other teams in the NL Wild Card hunt, like the Dodgers, didn't have the benefit of playing Houston 15 times.

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.