Cardinals’ season-ending report: 100 wins outshine NLDS flop

Cardinals midseason: Home form must improve

As the St. Louis Cardinals kept losing players and winning games, eventually recording the majors’ first 100-win season since 2011, there was a suspicion that they could run into trouble in the playoffs due to an inconsistent offense.

Sure enough, the Chicago Cubs eliminated St. Louis in the National League Division Series, but not because the Cardinals’ bats went into a crippling cold spell. Instead, the starting pitching that carried the team all year suddenly stopped getting outs.

After John Lackey and two relievers blanked Chicago in Game 1, Jaime Garcia made it through just two innings in Game 2, undone by five unearned runs and a stomach virus. Michael Wacha’s September struggles spilled over to Game 3, and Lackey’s attempt to work on three days of rest in Game 4 was scuttled by a four-run second inning.

Yet on many levels, it is hard to say the Cardinals’ season was a failure just because, for the first time in five year, they failed to reach the NL Championship Series. That they won 100 games and took first place in the best division in baseball says more about their accomplishments than losing three in a row to the 97-win Cubs.

“I have no regrets with this club,” manager Mike Matheny said after his team’s season-ending 6-4 loss to Chicago in Game 4 of the NLDS. “This team never let off the throttle, and that’s hard to do through a season that’s this long. They were grinding right to the end.”

St. Louis’ organizational depth was tested at every turn. Ace starter Adam Wainwright tore his left Achilles on April 25 in Milwaukee and missed five months. First baseman Matt Adams and left fielder Matt Holliday sat out more than 100 games each with right quad injuries, and outfielder Randal Grichuk’s right elbow hijacked his season for three weeks, depriving a power-hungry lineup of his homers.

Eighth-inning setup man Jordan Walden hit the disabled list April 30 with a right biceps problem and never returned. Starters Garcia, Lance Lynn and Carlos Martinez also spent time on the DL, with Martinez’s Sept. 25 shoulder injury ending his season at precisely the worst possible moment for a team counting on his power arm and competitive fire in October.

However, in crisis moments, the Cardinals found a way. Lackey was a rock, enjoying one of the best seasons of his career. Between DL stints, Garcia pitched to a 2.43 ERA. Young or lightly-proven pitchers such as Tyler Lyons, Miguel Socolovich, Tim Cooney and Mitch Harris provided critical boosts.

The farm system also produced help for the offense. Outfielder/first baseman Stephen Piscotty came up from Triple-A Memphis on July 21 and became an everyday fixture, batting .305 with seven homers and 39 RBIs in 63 games before belting three homers in the NLDS. Outfielder Tommy Pham gave the team a big lift in September, clubbing four homers.

Of the everyday players who stayed healthy, third baseman Matt Carpenter cracked a career-high 28 homers and scored 101 runs to lead the offense. Right fielder Jason Heyward affected the texture of nearly every game positively, supplying Gold Glove defense to go along with solid offense.

Shortstop Jhonny Peralta belted 17 homers and played good defense again, although his offensive numbers fell off sharply in August and September. Second baseman Kolten Wong enjoyed a good year, although he also slipped on offense down the stretch, and catcher Yadier Molina remained an elite defender but is no longer a power threat with the bat.

As St. Louis heads to the offseason, re-signing Heyward and Lackey are the main priorities. Both are free agents, and Heyward’s price could be steep, as he is one of the youngest free agents ever.

With the young Cubs only figuring to get better and the 98-win Pittsburgh Pirates lurking in the background, the Cardinals have no margin for error if they are to continue their status as perennial contenders.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Wainwright said.