ST. LOUIS — For the fourth straight year, October in St. Louis is tinted red. Capping the end of an improbable series in an improbable season, the Cardinals defeated Clayton Kershaw for a second time in the 2104 NLDS and are heading to the National League Championship Series.
“I think what it says is these guys believe in themselves,” GM John Mozeliak said amid showers of champagne and ecstatic shouts in the clubhouse. “We talk a lot about the talent and the money and all that, but a lot of this is about what’s inside this room in terms of character and willingness to want to win, understanding the sacrifices it takes to win and all of them understand that. They get it and that’s what they’re doing.”
It was an uncharacteristically emotional response form Mozeliak, who is largely credited with assembling a St. Louis team that has now made four straight NLCS appearances. The most recent comes after defeating baseball’s biggest payroll in the Los Angeles Dodgers ($229.3 million), with two league-minimum players hitting deciding home runs in back-to-back games.
What is your prediction for the NLCS? Share your thoughts.
It’s a testament to the Cardinals’ belief in their system, an approach defined by cultivating internal talent and treating each game as an independent entity.
“That hasn’t really been brought up much through the season, how many homegrown players,” manager Mike Matheny said. “That’s something we as an organization take a lot of pride in - when you see how many of these kids came up through (the Cardinals’ farm system), and are contributing. Not just making it here, but thriving at this level and helping us to be able to walk in there and pop champagne.”
The bubbly was flowing freely Tuesday, with young players doused in champagne and administering plenty in good-spirited retribution amid a stable of veterans.
“Yeah, faces change but the same goals always apply and that’s always to get back here. I look back to this season and we did it a much different way than we did it a year ago,” Mozeliak said. “But I think those challenges sort of helped us in this short series. We played a lot of tight games and a lot of one-run games so we got used to it.”
The Cardinals played 55 games decided by a single run, winning 32, more than a third of the team’s 90 victories. St. Louis lived on the edge all season, looking up at the Brewers for 150 days before clawing its way to the top of the NL Central and hanging on in the season’s waning days. The reward? Facing the best pitcher in baseball twice in a five game series.
Both times they found themselves trailing after six innings, and both times they came away with an inexplicable win. Tuesday, Kershaw shredded the Birds through 18 outs, striking out nine while allowing only one hit while his offense built a 2-0 lead.
A feeble rally brought Matt Adams to the plate, hitting .190 against lefties and a pitcher that had allowed only one all year from a left-handed hitter.
But impossible is what the Cardinals do in October, and Adams swung his way into St. Louis lore with a three-run shot.
“We never really gave up. No matter how many runs or how many games we’ve been down, we just kept battling,” the big first baseman said as he wiped champagne from his eyes. “So it definitely felt good to get that one today.”
The victory’s release was clear in the clubhouse, as the normally stoic Redbirds were all smiles, dancing and spraying each other with any bottle they could find. Absent was Matheny, who has for so long been the unwavering rock amidst an unpredictable current. Mozeliak praised his skipper, noting that three straight NLCS bids likely don’t happen without Matheny’s guidance.
“I’ve always said Mike is the glue of this. One of the things he understands is how to keep these guys going,” he said with a nod. “Back when Tony stepped down and we were looking for someone to step in and do this, that was one of the things we felt was very important to be successful. Mike embodies that, he understands it. He has that presence and that’s what makes him so special.”
A history of recent postseason success in the Gateway City has also helped. While several key contributors in 2014 are still green in postseason play, the core of the Cardinal club leans on past lessons.
“If you have something to draw off of, it always helps,” Adam Wainwright said. “Especially positive things. We have so many positive playoff moments we can draw from.”
The Birds can add Tuesday night to the uplifting memories, as they begin planning for mid-October play. As Dodgers players filed out to their bus, eyes fixed straight ahead and headphones insulating them from the cheers from the home clubhouse, St. Louis celebrated another homegrown success.
Still, despite all of the ingredients that went into this championship, Mozeliak admitted building a successful club comes down to the one unquantifiable element of baseball.
“A lot of luck,” he said with a smile. “A lot of luck.”
Luck favors the prepared and right now there is no team that is more prepared for October than the Cardinals.