ST. LOUIS — As 2014 draws to a close, we are looking back on the Cardinals’ season. It’s been a few months since the Birds were on the field, so here’s a refresher on the main story points from last year. As always we could include a few more, but these seven chapters best defined the 2014 for the St. Louis Cardinals.
A struggle early
The Cardinals entered 2014 with the burden of high expectations. Fresh off a World Series appearance and fielding what was believed to be the strongest Opening Day rotation in baseball, St. Louis stumbled through the first 50 games. Expected to sprint out to a lead, the team instead sputtered often because of impotent hitting but still managed a 28-22 mark while trailing the Brewers the whole way.
They hit .257, left nearly eight runners on a game and had trouble pushing across runs.
In the first 50 contests, the Birds scored less than four runs 21 times and won only four of those games.
In addition to the offensive struggles, the Cardinals lost Joe Kelly for several weeks when he pulled a hamstring in mid-April.
“It’s still early” became a common refrain at Busch Stadium.
Injury bug bites hard
With Kelly already sidelined, in mid-June the Cardinal rotation suffered what could have been the death blow for a lot of teams. Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha both went to the DL, the former suffering from season-ending thoracic outlet surgery and the latter missing 78 days with a stress reaction in his shoulder.
To make matters worse, Yadier Molina would be lost a few weeks later. Perhaps the most irreplaceable player in baseball, Molina had been holding a patchwork rotation together following the loss of the three starters. In early July, he tore a thumb ligament in his right hand and was out for seven weeks.
Despite all this, the Cardinals closed the first half by pulling to within one game of the division after starting the month 6.5 games back. Though their offensive dimmed even further, they won six games in which they scored three runs or less, largely because the pitching staff threw seven shutouts in that 40-game stretch, and kept opposing teams to two runs or less 18 times.
With Molina on the DL, the Cardinals acquired veteran A.J. Pierzynski to fill the backstop role as they continued to fight for ground in the division. The move surprised many around the league because Pierzynski was an uncertain fit for the clubhouse. But the mercurial catcher proved to be a valuable pickup. He made his debut at Wrigley Field after joining the team and unboxing fresh gear all in the same afternoon and led the Cards with three hits to a 6-3 victory.
Just before the July 31 trade deadline, GM John Mozeliak shipped a struggling Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to the Red Sox for John Lackey. The move stunned the clubhouse as well as the fan base and made it clear the franchise was playing for a return to October in 2014.
A late charge
The Cardinals surged in August and into September, eventually taking the division lead on September 1. The charge was led by the offense of Jon Jay, who hit .382 in August and finished at .325 over the final two months. On the mound, a resurgent Shelby Miller held batters to a .205 average over 10 starts in August and September and surrendered only one earned run over three starts against the Reds, Pirates and Brewers.
St. Louis secured the division on the final weekend, and returned to the playoffs to face the Dodgers.
In the postseason, the veterans struggled but the youngsters picked up the slack as the Redbirds again knocked the Dodgers out of contention before themselves falling to the San Francisco Giants, eventual World Series winners.
Molina continued to claw back from his injury, but eventually succumbed to a torn oblique muscle in Game 2 of the NLCS. Adam Wainwright went through two lackluster starts, before finally making a valiant stand in Game 5 of that series with seven innings of two-run work.
But it was the young Cardinals who made their mark in October, led on offense by Kolten Wong’s .724 slugging percentage. The second baseman had seven hits, picking up three doubles, a triple and three home runs, including an NLCS walk-off. Matt Adams also homered three times, including one that punctuated an unbelievable second victory over Clayton Kershaw and knocked the Dodgers out of the NLDS.
On the mound, Marco Gonzales finished his first partial big league season by getting two wins in relief and not giving up a run until his sixth and final postseason outing in Game 4. Seth Maness continued to shine in a workman role, allowing five hits and no runs in his six appearances and finishing out two games.
The biggest splash was Oscar Taveras’ pinch-hit homer in Game 2 of the NLCS. With the crowd deflated by Molina’s injury, the rookie outfielder tied the game in the seventh inning, restoring life to Busch Stadium and giving fans a glimpse of the possible future.
The loss to San Francisco did not diminish excitement and expectation showcased in the late season run.
Death of Oscar
Just as the optimism for the 2015 season built, tragedy stuck in the Dominican Republic when Oscar Taveras, long expected to be the next great Cardinal star, died in a car crash on October 26.
Taveras, just 22, was driving while intoxicated on a coastal road with his girlfriend and lost control of the car. His passing had a profound impact on the organization; not only as a lost player, but a lost teammate and friend. Fans mourned him outside of Busch Stadium, leaving photos, notes and memorabilia at the base of the Stan Musial statue. Throughout baseball, players expressed their grief on social media and a moment of silence was held during the World Series.
Passed by the memorial for Oscar on my walk to the car. It's heartbreaking. pic.twitter.com/1QphxzNCUD— J.J. Bailey (@TheJJBailey) October 28, 2014
The next chapter
Forced to rapidly reconsider the team’s landscape, Mozeliak sent Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins to Atlanta for Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden.
Heyward, 25, is in the final year of his contract and the trade marked a change from recent strategy in which Mozeliak often avoided short-tenured stars in favor of long-term club control.
While Kelly and Miller are gone, both Gonzales and Carlos Martinez will compete for the rotation with Wainwright, Lynn, Lackey and Wacha.
As new faces entered the clubhouse, several familiar ones left. Dean Anna joined the team as a utility infielder, leading to the exit of Daniel Descalso. Jason Motte signed with the Cubs as a free agent, Pat Neshek went to Houston and Shane Robinson was released. Reliever Matt Belisle was signed in early December and veteran power-hitter Mark Reynolds joined the team nine days later.
Those moves made it clear the organization felt it had everything in place to contend in 2015.