The St. Louis Cardinals reported to 2012 spring training camp as the defending champions of Major League Baseball, coming off their 11th World Series title, but with many changes and open questions.
16-year manager Tony La Russa and his legendary pitching coach Dave Duncan were gone, along with three other coaches. New manager Mike Matheny came in with a strong playing and leadership pedigree but no managerial experience.
Superstar Albert Pujols had departed after 11 Hall of Fame-caliber seasons for more money in Anaheim. Money earmarked for his salary was primarily used to sign Carlos Beltran to play right field and to re-sign shortstop Rafael Furcal. Lance Berkman moved to first base with an open competition for who would play next to him as the starting second baseman. The bench candidates were almost all young and relatively inexperienced.
From opening day through May 24, the Cardinals held down first place, but they lost steam, never regaining the division lead, as Cincinnati surged. In fact, almost the entire time from early June through August 21, St. Louis was in third place, also behind upstart Pittsburgh. The club was 2.5 games behind at the all-star break, but fell to seven back at the end of July and finished nine games out with an 88-74 record. That was two fewer wins than in 2011.
Fortunately, MLB implemented a second wild card in 2012. The Cardinals batted with several clubs for that spot, with the Los Angeles Dodgers the last competitor to fall by the wayside. St. Louis clinched following Game 161 of 162 as Matheny led his first club into the post-season.
After winning the one-game wild card competition in Atlanta, the Cardinals dispatched the team with the best record in the NL, the Washington Nationals, in the division series, three games to two. The Cardinals sprinted out to a 3-1 lead over San Francisco in the championship series, only to lose pivotal Game 5 at home. Returning to San Francisco, the Cardinals scored just one run in their final two lopsided losses to end the season.
Check back soon for Part 2 of this article, which will dig into the stats behind the 2012 Cardinals regular season performances. Part 3 will cover the Cardinals post-season and include a look ahead to 2013.
For the second consecutive year, the club lost an ace during spring camp. In 2011, the right elbow of Adam Wainwright gave out, leading to him missing the entire season. This time, Chris Carpenter suffered what was originally diagnosed as a bulging cervical disk, after having experienced weakness in his neck, shoulder and upper arm. The 37-year-old never appeared in an official spring game. Carp opened the season on the disabled list with no clear date for a return.
On March 1, the Cardinals announced a five-year, $75 million contract extension with catcher Yadier Molina that raised some eyebrows across the game. Molina responded with his second consecutive career-best season.
|Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Bob Gibson in camp|
In an indication of what was to continue in April, the staff had an NL-best 3.05 spring ERA. Lance Lynn, who proved his mettle as a reliever in 2011, was elevated to the rotation to replace Carpenter and was solid in camp, posting a 2.61 spring ERA.
Offensively, only David Freese (.188) and Rafael Furcal (.192) didn't hit much, though the third baseman's 10 RBI was just one off the team's lead.
Though any winner was undeclared, it seemed Daniel Descalso had edged out Tyler Greene as the starting second baseman. Skip Schumaker was out of the initial competition, opening the season on the disabled list due to an oblique injury incurred during camp. Infielder/outfielder Allen Craig was also still out after suffering a setback in his recovery from off-season knee surgery.
Partially due to the injuries, there was little surprise as to the makeup of the initial 25-man roster. Tony Cruz beat out Bryan Anderson as the reserve catcher and veteran reliever Scott Linebrink made the club as a non-roster invitee, sending Eduardo Sanchez back to Memphis.
Four of the five reserve position players made their first opening day roster. They were Cruz, infielder Matt Carpenter plus outfielders Shane Robinson and Rule 5 addition Erik Komatsu. Veteran NRIs catcher Koyie Hill and infielder Alex Cora were given trials during camp, but were released.
|Furcal and Matheny|
When the regular season bell rang, St. Louis stormed out of the gate, becoming the first defending champion since 1922 to win its first six series, though none were by sweep. Almost all their action was in the NL Central, with St. Louis being the only one of the six clubs to log a winning April record at 14-8. Their division lead was three games. Still, some wonder what might have been, considering the club absorbed four one-run losses and finished the month on a 5-5 treadmill.
Through the first month, the Cardinals led the National League in runs, hits, total bases, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and scoring differential. The Cardinals ranked second in the majors in team ERA, featuring three starters with at least three wins and ERAs below two in Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn and Kyle Lohse. All this occurred with co-aces Chris Carpenter (injured) and Adam Wainwright contributing zero wins between them. The solid start helped keep pressure off new manager Matheny, who did get his first ejection.
Matt Carpenter filled in at first base for Lance Berkman, who played in just seven games before injuring a calf muscle and hitting the disabled list. The preferred fill-in, Allen Craig, missed the entire month.
Another early arrival on the DL was reliever Scott Linebrink, who did not appear in a game before going down with shoulder capsulitis and eventually being released. His replacement, Victor Marte, proved to be a pleasant surprise initially, allowing three runs in 9 2/3 innings, fanning eight and walking two. Former first round pick Adam Ottavino was lost via outright waivers to Colorado.
Schumaker was activated late in the month when Jon Jay missed over a week due to a shoulder injury. Upon Jay's return, Skip took over at second base as neither Descalso nor Greene performed particularly well during April. Both batted an even .200.
|La Russa's ceremony|
It was the first of two consecutive losing months for the Cards, as they went 13-16 in May. They were just 1-5 against Atlanta, were swept by the Dodgers in LA and lost three of four to the Phillies at home. They also swept Arizona and San Diego.
With Berkman still out, Craig was activated on the 1st, taking over at first base. Komatsu was the casualty, as he was returned to Washington to make roster room.
On the 11th, Tony La Russa's number 10 was retired by the team. La Russa, the winningest manager in franchise history with 1,408 wins, announced his retirement last October after a record 16 seasons in the job and after guiding the Cardinals to their 11th World Championship. He led the Cardinals to eight division titles, three National League pennants and two World Championships.
Beltran was named the National League Player of the Week for the period ending May 13.
Injuries were mounting. Jay, who hurt his shoulder in a collision with the outfield wall on April 19, finally went onto the disabled list on May 15. Three days later, Craig (hamstring) was back on the DL and Kyle McClellan (elbow) joined him. On the 20th, Berkman, who had played just six games, hurt his knee again. His replacement was rookie Matt Adams, up from Memphis. Matt Carpenter suffered an oblique strain and was placed on the DL on the 23rd.
Speaking of May 23, that was the final day the 2012 Cardinals spent in first place. The club lost five of its final seven games of the month to NL East powers Philadelphia and Atlanta.
The Cardinals continued to skid, beginning the month by being no-hit by the Mets' Johan Santana, on their way to losing three of four at Citi Field. St. Louis won interleague series with the White Sox and Kansas City, but fell to Cleveland and Detroit in the 13-14 month.
On June 22, both Jon Jay and Matt Carpenter returned to action. The former missed 35 games, with the latter having missed 27 contests.
On June 27, Matt Holliday began a 17-game hitting streak. The stretch, which ran until July 17, was the longest by a Cardinal this past season.
Beltran and Furcal were voted into the All-Star Game as starting outfielder and shortstop, respectively. Lynn and Molina were named by the players as reserves. Freese joined them as the winner of the fan Final Vote process. Molina had to miss the game due to a family death, however.
The Cards went into the All-Star break with a 46-40 record and were 2 ½ games behind the Reds. Coming out of the break, the Cardinals were swept in Cincinnati. Despite St. Louis going 15-10 in July, by the time the month was out, the red-hot Reds were up by seven games.
Diagnosed with a torn labrum, McClellan had mid-July surgery. His season was officially over. Chris Carpenter soon had his own procedure, also expected to be season-ending. His thoracic outlet surgery included removal of a rib to relieve nerve pressure. It proved to be more successful than expected as Carpenter was able to return in September.
Hard-throwing rookie Trevor Rosenthal was promoted from Double-A Springfield directly to St. Louis. The club added a new left-hander in Brian Fuentes, earlier released by Oakland. The 36-year-old was sent to the minors to work his way into playing shape before joining St. Louis on the 25th.
One year after Rafael Furcal was acquired at the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline, the Cardinals added reliever Edward Mujica. The right-hander was acquired from the Miami Marlins for former first-round draft pick Zack Cox. Mujica pitched superbly from the start, slipping into the designated reliever for the seventh inning, leading to Mitchell Boggs in the eighth and Jason Motte to close. This combination was very effective in the final two months.
Unable to break off a long winning run like the Reds, the Cards lost 2 ½ more games to the Reds in the standings during August, despite a 16-13 record. Sitting 9 ½ games out, making the playoffs as a wild card seemed far more attainable.
Former first round draft pick Tyler Greene was traded to Houston on August 9, a day after he booted a potential double play ball and was booed at Busch Stadium. The 28-year-old started at second base regularly in the early season, but was used less as the year progressed.
Ryan Jackson made his MLB debut in replacing Greene on the roster, but was used very rarely the rest of the way and when he did, it was primarily at second base instead of shortstop.
On the 14th, Fuentes was placed on the restricted list after the left-handed reliever informed the team that he needed to step away from the game due to personal reasons. He made just six appearances as a Cardinal.
With the return of Jaime Garcia on the 19th, after having been out since June 5, Joe Kelly was moved to the bullpen. That only lasted one week when an ineffective Lance Lynn was taken out of the rotation and Kelly reinstated.
Adam Wainwright logged his finest game of the season and the best by any Cardinals starter against Houston on August 21. The recovering right-hander struck out 12 Astros in his complete-game shutout.
Another major event occurred that day as the Cardinals announced a contract extension with Jake Westbrook that carries through the 2013 season and includes a mutual option for 2014. The move most likely signals the end of Lohse's time with St. Louis, as it seemed likely the team would not keep both.
From September 1 through the final three games of the regular season (which ended on October 3), the Cardinals went 17-13. That final month's record being a winning one was due to four consecutive two games-to-one series wins to close the season. That included home series wins over two of the three NL division champions and potential playoff opponents Washington and Cincinnati.
Triple-A call-ups in late August and early September included eight players plus the activation of Lance Berkman from the disabled list. The additions included pitchers Shelby Miller, Victor Marte and Sam Freeman, catchers Steven Hill and Bryan Anderson, infielders Ryan Jackson and Pete Kozma and outfielder Adron Chambers.
Though Berkman was activated, his ongoing knee problems led to yet another surgery. That limited him to seven plate appearances in the final month and perhaps concluded his long and successful career.
Kozma, holding one of the lowest OPS's in Triple-A, became a surprise contributor in the final month. Due to a partial tear of a ligament in his right elbow, Rafael Furcal did not play again after August 30, opening up the shortstop job. The rest of the way, Kozma drove in 14 runs in 26 games and logged a line of .333/.383/.569.
Westbrook suffered a strained oblique on the 9th, an injury that would ultimately end his season. After six relief appearances, Lynn returned to the rotation on September 13. He made four starts to close the regular season, winning all four.
Carpenter made a surprise return after it seemed he would be out until 2013. The 37-year-old made three starts to close out the regular season and demonstrated his readiness to assume a spot in the post-season rotation.
All during September and into October, the Cardinals battled with the Dodgers, Brewers and Pirates for the second of two wild cards, while Atlanta took the first. Los Angeles was the last to bow out as St. Louis clinched with one game remaining in the regular schedule. The Cardinals' overall record was 88-74.
Upcoming articles in this series
In Part 2 of this article, we will drill down into 2012 Cardinals players' individual stats and team marks during the regular season.
Part 3 will recap the Cardinals post-season results, along with a 2013 outlook.
Previous articles in this series
Link to article with links to all articles about previous award winners across the system club by club as well as 2012 team recaps, much of it exclusively for The Cardinal Nation subscribers.
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Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Look for his content at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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