The St. Louis Cardinals eked their way into the playoffs with a mere 88 wins and and proceeded to march their way through the stiffest of competition. Now, the reigning World Champions sit on the precipice of returning to the Fall Classic to face a familiar foe.
After defeating the Texas Rangers last October, Cardinals fans watched as their Hall of Fame manager, Tony LaRussa, retired and their Hall of Fame first baseman and franchise icon, Albert Pujols, signed elsewhere. The casual observer would have given St. Louis virtually no chance at returning to the playoffs in 2012, let alone a possible repeat title run.
But GM John Mozeliak took a chance on a former catcher with no managerial experience in hiring Mike Matheny for the position and then took a chance on a former superstar with a pair of bad knees and a need for a fresh start when he signed Carlos Beltran to take Pujols’ spot in the order.
And as much as it has been the play of hitters like Beltran, Matt Holliday, and Yadier Molina during the season, the playoffs have been a tale of role players. From Daniel Descalso to Pete Kozma to Matt Carpenter, St. Louis has gotten significant contributions form each and given more than enough support to a bullpen that has never looked better. Even with the return of staff ace Chris Carpenter, the starting staff hasn’t been exceptional overall, but once the game gets into the hands of the relief corps, it’s been game over.
There’s been an aura of magic surrounding this playoff run. The play of Kozma, in particular, has only added to the idea of a team of destiny. Kozma had been nothing short of a first-round bust until getting the call when Rafael Furcal went down with season-ending elbow surgery. In fact, Mozeliak acknowledged that there had been times this season when he had considered removing Kozma from the 40-man roster, which would have exposed the shortstop to waivers. The thing is, even if that would have happened, it’s unlikely Kozma would have been claimed as he managed only a .232/.308/.344 over six minor league seasons.
While Kozma hasn’t matched his regular season .952 OPS during the playoffs, at .748 and with a couple key hits, including a three-run homer during the NLDS, Kozma is proving his worth to the Cardinals.
The thing is, with this team, even if you mention the contributions of many, you’re likely snubbing the contributions of others. Centerfielder Jon Jay has been tremendous both offensively and defensively, right hander Kyle Lohse has carried a career-year into the playoffs as well, and David Freese has once again discovered a penchant for post-season heroics.
If the Cardinals can put away the Giants, over whom they hold a three-games-to-one edge entering Game Five tonight, they’ll face the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. It would be the fourth time the two clubs have met in the Fall Classic. St. Louis defeated the Tigers in 1934 and 2006 with Detroit taking the 1968 Series.
Considering their history and the way things have been rolling for the Cardinals, I don’t think there’s a team the Tigers would like to see less than St. Louis in the World Series.