BASEBALLStL - Everybody knows Matt Holliday came alive in the last month of the season, and that the Cardinal pitchers improved markedly on Yadier Molina’s return, and that Adam Wainwright won 20 games. And yes, Jhonny Peralta hit 21 taters, Matt Adams emerged as a bona fide hitter and Matt Carpenter had 162 hits.
All that is true and together those players are a big reason why the St. Louis Cardinals squeezed past Pittsburgh and repeated as Central Division champs.
But if that’s all the Cardinals had, they’d be the Brewers, cleaning out their lockers and muttering to themselves about what should have been.
The difference? These six players and the winner of the first annual Michael Wacha Award, given to the Redbird pitcher who emerged from nowhere to play a significant role in the team’s success. (Sadly, there is no budget for this award so the winner gets my warmest personal regards).
Three players the Redbirds absolutely needed, in no order:
1). Daniel Descalso. Again. He played all four infield positions, threw a third of an inning of relief, pinch ran, pinch hit and cheered the starters, never knowing if or when he might contribute. He worked as hard as any starter, never complained, never pouted, and always came to the ballpark ready to do whatever was asked of him. Think that is easy? Trying sitting on the bench for three straight games and then hitting against Aroldis Chapman’s 102-mph fastball in the late afternoon sun. He hit .242 after a sub-.200 start (on-base percentage was .333) and made just 4 errors in 59 games.
2). Peter Bourjos. We expected too much early. Bourjos was coming off terrible injuries that needed a lot of time to heal. As an Angel, his shattered wrist was set with pins and screws and then severely pulled a hamstring. Hitting about .200 early didn’t earn him a lot of love but by the middle of the year, he started to display the form the Cards expected. He ended at .231 with four homers, nine doubles, nine steals and tied for the team lead with five triples. (You’ll never guess whom he tied with. Matt Adams. Really). But he earns this distinction not because of hitting, but the way he could go get ‘em in the outfield. My favorite Bourjos moment was a Willie Mays-worthy catch at full speed on the warning track in Milwaukee that saved that game and arguably, buried the Brewers.
3). Randal Grichuk (the other acquisition in the David Freese-to-the-Angels trade) is also the answer to the trivia question, who was the player drafted BEFORE Mike Trout? This guy can play and in the next few years, the Cardinals will make room for him somewhere. Red Schoendienst (who ought to know) said in spring training that the ball jumped off Grichuk’s bat quicker than anyone he had seen in a long time. He also raised his average 50 points in the second half of the year and made a couple of diving catches in right field.
Teams win or lose because of their bullpen and the Redbirds’ pen was, in my opinion, the reason they won the Central Division. In no order:
1). Pat Neshek. Yes, he struggled at the end, but look at the body of work: 25 holds, a 1.87 ERA, 68 Ks in 67 innings and a WHIP under 1. Find someone better. Anywhere. And he came off the scrap heap.
2). Seth Maness. Looks like the kid next door who mows your lawn but has the nerves of an assassin. His 2.91 ERA, three saves and 11 holds are solid but the way he pounded the zone is what distinguished him: 55 Ks and just 11 walks in 80 innings. Forget the eighth inning, three-run bomb to Ike Davis in Pittsburgh. That was an aberration. This guy handled the business.
3). Sam Freeman. I like Sam Freeman because he is a gentleman. And when Kevin Siegrist broke down, Freeman did not wet the bed. He knew this was his last best opportunity and he seized it. In 38 pressure-packed innings, he fanned 35 and scored 11 holds to go with a couple of victories. Control was occasionally an issue, but he seldom let it hurt him, surrendering just 11 earned runs and coming through in big spots.
And, the winner of the just-made-up Michael Wacha Award for distinguished service by a pitcher who came from nowhere:
Marco Gonzales. From AA to starting pitcher for a title-contending team is an enormous leap and while Gonzales struggled his first time up, he looked like a seasoned veteran in the last month with his composure and adaptation to big league hitters. He was 4-2 and fanned almost a hitter an inning in his 34 innings of work, most of it down the stretch when it mattered the most.