It wouldn't be right to suggest that the Cardinals were lucky. Sure, a lot of things had to go right for them to make the playoffs. They were chasing the Atlanta Braves, who suffered one of the worst collapses in years, and one that will be remembered as one of the worst collapses in baseball history between 11:40 p.m and 11:59 p.m. on September 28th. But the Cardinals weren't necessarily lucky. Their season started with Adam Wainwright needing Tommy John surgery. That's as important of a loss as a team can suffer. No luck there.
The Cardinals are in a 1-1 tie with the juggernaut Phillies, holding de facto home-field advantage for the remaining three games. It was somewhere between improbable and impossible just a couple of weeks ago, but don't call it luck. Here, then, are three unexpected things that helped the Cardinals where they are today.
It's not a surprise that Dave Duncan took a broken Kyle Lohse, tinkered with him, and made him useful. That's sort of Duncan's modus operandi. Still, if Lohse pitched like he was expected to, the Cardinals would never have battled to the last day with the Braves. Instead, he led the team in ERA.
Credit Duncan for not giving into temptation, too.
Dave Duncan: Halladay? Really? Ugh.
Mozeliak: Wait, I thought you'd be thrilled.
Duncan: (pops in DVD) Look at his motion. Compact. Strong. And his pitches dart all over the place, going wherever he wants to put them.
Mozeliak: But ...
Duncan: I can't do anything with that crap. But I heard through the grapevine that Kyle Davies might be available. Now there's a guy I can get behind.
Mozeliak: Dayton asked for Colby Rasmus and Pete Kozma, then hung up on me accidentally.
The Endless Well of Productive Outfielders
Matt Holliday has had a injurious season. Rasmus was dealt for pitching help. On other teams, that would have decimated the outfield alignment, but the Cardinals plugged in Jon Jay and Allen Craig when they needed to, and both were quite effective. In 2009, Jay was a 24-year-old outfielder hitting .281/.338/.394 in the Pacific Coast League -- that all adds up to a disheartening description of a young player. Craig did better that year at the same age, hitting .322/.374/.547, but, again, it was the PCL. The average hitter in the PCL in 2009 hit .272/.341/.418, and Craig's K/BB ratio indicated that he was a bit of a hacker.
Something clicked for both players in 2010, though, as their K/BB ratios both evened out in the PCL. And after some playing time in the majors in 2010, both of them emerged as viable starting outfielders for the Cardinals when needed. Jay took over in center after the Rasmus trade, and Craig was content to hit like Holliday when the All-Star wasn't available. It wasn't something the Cardinals should have expected before the season started, but they're thrilled with how things worked out.
There were two things that made the Lance Berkman deal amusing. One was that he was supposed to play the outfield. Berkman is a galoot -- a large, stumbly clomper who hadn't seen time in the outfield since 2007. He was going to be 35 and playing the outfield exclusively for the first time since 2004. Also, he was a galoot.
The second amusing thing was that the Cardinals were willing to take the defensive risk for his bat, yet he looked almost washed up in 2010. His power and average weren't there for the Astros, and then when he was traded to the Yankees, his power completely disappeared. He hit one lousy home run as a Yankee, and essentially turned into Nick Punto in Lance Berkman's body.
So that was the experiment. And, lo, how it worked. Berkman wasn't just a good hitter, he was again one of the best in the National League. His defense really was an adventure, but the bat was so, so worth it. The Cardinals had the best offense in the NL in 2011, and Berkman was the most surprising part. Well, as surprising as it can be coming from a multiple All-Star who will receive Hall of Fame consideration one day. Still, no one could have predicted it would work out that well.
Every playoff team had things go right for them -- this isn't to suggest that the Cardinals had more surprises than any other team. But any honest evaluation in March of this year would have missed these three factors of the Cardinals' playoff run. They took the team into the playoffs, and with a win over the next two games, could take the Phillies to the brink of elimination.