St. Louis Cardinals: The big picture
Regular-season record: 90-72, won National League Central Division by two games.
Against lofty expectations, the defending NL champions struggled all season due to meager run production. Still, when it mattered most, the 2014 Cardinals put together a 17-9 September to capture first place in the Central Division.
Never too high and never too low, the Cards lingered in second place for most of the initial five months. Though they were not swept in a single series during the regular season, the Cardinals were as much as 6 ½ games off the pace as late as July 1.
In the final month, St. Louis took over the division lead from slumping Milwaukee and held off charging Pittsburgh. An 8-2 September head-to-head mark against those two rivals helped seal the title.
The Cardinals are a proven October unit, reaching the post-season for the fourth time in the last four years. That includes two consecutive division titles, two NL pennants and the 2011 World Championship.
The Cards and Dodgers are familiar post-season opponents, meeting for the fourth time in the last decade. St. Louis holds a 2-1 edge, including taking the 2013 Championship Series.
Pitching is the anchor
Overcoming the loss of starting pitchers Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha for much of the season due to injuries, the rotation led the way. The Cardinals starters were fifth in the NL in ERA at 3.44 and third in winning percentage (.544).
The staff is paced by NL September Pitcher of the Month Adam Wainwright. In his second career 20-win season, the right-hander logged a 2.38 ERA. That includes 11 road victories, tied for most in Major League Baseball. Right behind at 2.74 and a 15-10 record is unheralded Lance Lynn.
Inconsistent earlier, Shelby Miller came on strong in September, posting a 1.48 ERA over his five final-month outings. Veteran John Lackey, 35, added via trade from Boston in July, has been less than expected, but is a proven October performer. Some combination of Miller, 23, Wacha, 22, and Lackey will be the Cardinals’ third and fourth post-season starters.
Update: On Wednesday afternoon, the club announced their DS rotation will consist of Wainwright, Lynn, Lackey and Miller, in that order, with Wacha moving to the bullpen.
Hard-throwing closer Trevor Rosenthal allows more baserunners than the average NL pitcher (1.41 WHIP vs. 1.27), elevated due to 42 free passes issued in 70 1/3 innings. Yet his total of 45 saves (in 51 opportunities) is second in the league.
All-star setup man Pat Neshek, lights out over the first four months, yielded 10 earned runs in his 24 innings pitched in August and September. The left side of the pen also remains unsettled with 2013 standout Kevin Siegrist scuffling.
Runs harder to find
The 2014 Cardinals excel with their pitching but live or die with their offense. The club won seven fewer games than in 2013 while scoring a whopping 164 runs less than the year before. This season, the Cards offense tied for just the 10th-most runs in the 15-team league after they plated the NL's highest total last year.
The numbers argue that the club overachieved just by winning 90 games. After all, the Cards’ Pythagorean won-loss record, an expectation based on runs scored and runs allowed, was a meager 83-79. Coincidentally, St. Louis’ 2006 World Champions posted just 83 victories during that regular season.
Two of the club’s steadiest run producers from last season, Allen Craig and Carlos Beltran, are gone. Their replacements in the lineup, Matt Adams at first and a revolving door of players in right field, have been inconsistent.
All-star leadoff man Matt Carpenter hit just .255 in the second half, but due to an NL-best walk total, still maintained a .371 on-base mark since the break. The only .300 hitter among the regulars is outfielder Jon Jay, who did not have a clear starting job as the season opened.
Number three hitter Matt Holliday came on strong in September, with six home runs and 23 RBI in 28 games. The left fielder is the only Cardinal to drive in more than 75 in 2014. For a club that was last in the league in long balls, newcomer Jhonny Peralta led the way with 21, but the shortstop batted just .222 in September. After missing most of July and August due to a torn thumb ligament, all-world catcher Yadier Molina is still looking for his first home run since June.
St. Louis is the epitome of a station-to-station offense with a season total of 56 stolen bases that was just one above the NL cellar. With 20 steals, rookie Kolten Wong is the only Cardinal with a double-digit total. Lumbering first sacker Adams tied Peter Bourjos for the team lead in triples with just five.
St. Louis dropped seven of its last nine road series to close the regular season with a losing record away from Busch Stadium. Seeded third, the Cardinals do not hold home field advantage in the Division Series.
At the end of June, St. Louis lost three of four in Los Angeles, including lop-sided defeats to Dodgers’ front-liners Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Three weeks later, the two clubs played three tight, one-run games at Busch Stadium with St. Louis taking two.
How the underdogs could prevail
Most national pundits have predicted the 94-win, $235 million-payroll Dodgers will win the Division Series in four or five games. For St. Louis to come out on top instead, they will have to maintain their strong starting pitching and scratch out more than the 2.0 runs per game they averaged in their seven regular-season outings versus Dodgers pitching.
With Wainwright and Lynn starting in Los Angeles, the Cards must take at least one of the first two to have a chance to close out the best-of-five game series at home. By following that formula, they can avoid having to play the final, winner-take-all game at Dodger Stadium.
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