Seventeen might be the defining number of the St. Louis Cardinals‘ season. As in how many games in a row they won during a record-setting September stretch.
But there’s another number that tells an even more dramatic tale of their year: 1.3.
According to FanGraphs, the Cardinals’ playoff odds hit a season-low 1.3% on Aug. 8. Even as late as Sept. 9, the day before their winning streak began, those odds sat at just 5%.
But seeing their chances of playing in October dip so low might be part of why St. Louis is preparing for an improbable NL Wild Card Game matchup Wednesday night in Los Angeles with the defending champion Dodgers rather than making offseason plans right now.
“It was weird because we would be one game back or two games back and we’d win and the Reds would lose and our postseason odds would go down,” longtime Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright said. “No one could understand that, so it kind of drove us a little bit, so thanks to all the people at FanGraphs that gave us zero respect so we could go out there with a chip on our shoulders.”
How they did it
There is a clear connection between St. Louis’ injuries and a decline in the standings.
“The mystery is not one for me,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said recently. “We played really good the first two months. We had a pretty good nucleus of our starting pitching. Then we lost four of our starters in a short period of time.
“Getting the rotation to stabilize was key.”
On May 31, the last day ace Jack Flaherty would take the mound for essentially three and a half months due to an oblique injury, the Cardinals were 30-24 and just two games out of an NL wild-card spot.
From that day until the trade deadline on July 30, St. Louis went 22-27, dropping seven games back in the race for the second wild-card spot with two teams to overcome.
The Cardinals managed to keep themselves within striking distance while waiting to get healthy, allowing them to ultimately take advantage of the injuries and poor play that derailed the season of a San Diego Padres team that seemed destined for the NL Wild Card Game for much of the year.
“We were waiting for that day that offense, defense and pitching all clicked together,” reliever Andrew Miller said last month. “It arrived.”
It came together in the form of a historic 17-game September win streak, tied for fourth longest in the NL in the modern era (since 1900).
Win No. 17, the final one of the streak, appropriately came the day they clinched a playoff berth, the organization’s 31st time reaching the postseason.
But there was a key decision the Cardinals had to make long before their season could reverse itself in September.
It turned out to be an easy one.
The trade deadline
For most teams on the playoff bubble, it’s an annual internal debate. Should they add at the July trade deadline, and go for it, or should they subtract some expiring contracts and retool for the future?
The Cardinals are not most teams.
“You always want September to count,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told ESPN.com. “When you look over the past 40 years with this organization, we’ve been able to have that.”
Here’s the bottom line: St. Louis, rarely, if ever, subtracts from its roster in these moments. But Mozeliak knew the odds as well as anyone, so he took a reasoned approach on July 30 rather than pushing his chips all-in.
Instead, the Cardinals filled their pitching holes with veterans who weren’t exactly lighting up the stat sheet. Jon Lester came over from the Washington Nationals and J.A. Happ from the Minnesota Twins. They brought their 5.02 and 6.77 ERA’s with them.
“When we did those deals, we knew they weren’t going to be publicly popular so I didn’t want to go in front of the media and stand up and do the wave,” Mozeliak said with a smile. “That would have been disingenuous. But what is genuine is we did those deals with a purpose. The purpose was to assist with our rotation because we were hemorrhaging at times.”
The plan worked. Both Lester and Happ have been better with the Cardinals than their old teams while the bullpen went from a whopping 13.5% walk rate before July 30 to a 7.9% rate since.
“It’s really just been the contagious thing of pitching and hitting well and the next guy wanting to as well,” Lester explained. “The second wild card helps. It gives you that possibility of getting in. Without that second wild card, we’re done.”
And without the deadline decisions — as minor as they seemed at the time — the Cardinals never get back in the race.
“Did we overwhelm at the trade deadline? No. But did it feel like it would help us? Yes,” Mozeliak said.
And when it all came together, the Cardinals not only made it to the postseason, they compiled one of the best Septembers in league history.
“That’s why I came here,” third baseman Nolan Arenado said. “I know they always have cared about winning. This organization knows how to win and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The streak didn’t begin with a speech or even a moment any player could recall as being all that memorable. Team leaders, including Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter, preached “stay the course,” an often used phrase in professional sports.
“There was no spark,” Miller said. “It was just nice to see the confidence we’ve had all year come to fruition.”
Mozeliak added: “What’s predictable is the type of play. Pre-streak, we were playing much better baseball.”
In the days before it began, the Cardinals actually lost four in a row, including the first two of a four-game series to the Dodgers at home.
“Several us were talking about, while we were playing the Dodgers, teams ahead of us were playing a softer schedule, so we knew the Dodgers were a key series,” Wainwright said. “We lost those first two games but winning those last two, it gave us a little bit of mojo going into the next series.”
St. Louis beat Los Angeles 5-4 on Sept. 8. The next day produced another one-run victory over the defending champions. Then Friday, Sept. 10 would be the last time the Cardinals would lose for the next 19 days, taking them from 3½ games out of the second wild card to 6½ games up.
Just like that, the race was over.
“You see a bunch of guys who have figured out their roles and are clicking at the same time,” Wainwright said in the middle of the streak. “The timing of it is really important also.”
They blew out teams, they came from behind and they won one-run affairs, all the while having a blast. Lester thought he remembered at most winning 10 in a row at one point in his career, while Wainwright recalled an eight-game streak back in 2006.
But nothing like this.
Arenado is in baseball heaven in his new home after spending his final two seasons in Colorado, much closer to the NL West basement than a playoff race.
“The energy is great,” Arenado said before win No. 14. “It’s fun to come to the clubhouse. A lot of people are on the first bus now. There’s a new energy. Sometimes in the season, it’s like, ‘alright, have to go to the ballpark.’ Now it’s like, ‘hey man, I can’t wait to get to the field.’
“I get anxious at 10:30 in the morning.”
And with the winning came some new superstitions in the Cardinals clubhouse.
“We have a couple guys in there with some holy underwear that need to be replaced,” Wainwright joked during the streak. “One guy, especially, there’s stuff hanging out all over the place but he can’t change them.”
The streak vaulted the Cardinals into the postseason and confirmed what Mozeliak and Shildt spoke about privately.
“Maybe we’re both eternal optimists,” Mozeliak said. “We believed in this club.”
Sometimes, that’s all it takes.
The streak eventually ended, but the Cardinals season continues for at least one more night. Beating the defending world champions could catapult them to heights unthinkable when they were long shots for the playoffs just a month ago.
“Those streaks are so rare,” Arenado said. “It’s been fun but we can’t stop now.”