To be honest, this hasn't been that great of a St. Louis Cardinals team. The Cardinals barely outscored their opponents (plus four on the season), they don't hit for much power (last in the National League in home runs), they don't have much team speed (13th in stolen bases), they don't score a lot of runs (10th in runs), their pitching/defense is OK but not terrific (seventh in runs allowed), and their best player this season was one of the most maligned signings of last winter (Jhonny Peralta).
Yet here they are, leading the NL Central by 4.5 games over the Pirates and five games over the Brewers as Adam Wainwright tossed a complete game in a 9-1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday, his best outing since before the All-Star break. In taking three of four from the Brewers this weekend, the Cardinals essentially wiped out the Brewers in the division race, kept a comfortable margin over the Pirates and perhaps made this bigger point: It's that time of the year when the Cardinals start playing their best baseball.
Back in 2011, the Cardinals entered September 8½ games behind in the NL wild-card race but went 18-8 in the final month to chase down the Atlanta Braves. Then they kept that momentum going all the way to a World Series title.
In 2012, they went 13-6 over the final 19 games to win one of the wild-card spots, beat the Braves in that game, had that dramatic four-run ninth inning in Game 5 of the division series to upset the Washington Nationals, and then took the San Francisco Giants to seven games in the NLCS.
In 2013, the Cardinals entered September tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates for first place but went 19-8, including a three-game sweep of the Pirates early in the month, to win the division. They beat the Pirates in the division series, with Michael Wacha and then Wainwright pitching gems in Games 4 and 5, and then beat Clayton Kershaw twice in the NLCS to reach the World Series.
Have the Cardinals been the best team in the NL from April through now? No. Do you want to play them right now? No. Especially if Wainwright is getting back on track.
I'm still not sure if Wainwright is back after he recorded just three strikeouts, but strikeouts aren't everything and he took a shutout into the ninth, throwing 71 strikes out of his 100 pitches. His average fastball velocity of 90.5 mph was right up there with his highest of the season (91.0 mph), so the arm fatigue he has battled has seemed less of an issue his past couple of outings.
Peralta went 3-for-5 on Sunday with his 20th home run. He really has been the team's secret weapon all season, batting .268/.342/.459. He's third among major league shortstops in home runs (Ian Desmond has 22 and the injured Troy Tulowitzki 21). In a year when few shortstops have provided much offense -- only nine have double-digit home runs -- Peralta's power and production have been huge. He also has played his usual underrated defense. His range may not be great, but he has a strong arm and is sure-handed. He's third among all shortstops in defensive runs saved at plus-17 (behind Andrelton Simmons and Zack Cozart), which ranks tied for seventh among all defensive players entering Sunday.
The total package has created one of the most valuable players in the league, not that he has gotten any attention for his season. Peralta ranks fifth among NL position players in Baseball-Reference WAR and sixth in FanGraphs WAR. How's that $53 million contract look now?
Despite the various setbacks the Cardinals faced during the season -- the lengthy injury to Wacha, the season-ending injury to Jaime Garcia, the nearly two months without Yadier Molina -- they're also getting things lined up. Wacha is back, Molina is back, Matt Holliday's power has returned in the second half, Matt Carpenter is quietly eighth in the NL in OBP, and rookie second baseman Kolten Wong has slugged .474 since July 6.
Back in March, everyone raved about the Cardinals' depth. That depth won't lead to a 97-win season like they had in 2013 but it did help them survive and get to this point. In fact, think of the struggles this year of the Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers, three deep-pocketed franchises regarded as preseason World Series contenders. In Boston's case, its young players didn't play up to expected levels; the Rangers were unable to overcome a slew of injuries (granted, it was a lot of injuries); the Tigers may yet make the playoffs but their lack of depth, especially in the rotation, has hurt them down the stretch.
The Cardinals always seem to have somebody to plug in (they've used 11 different starting pitchers for at least four starts). They bide their time, don't overreact or panic and understand it's a 162-game season, and you don't make the playoffs just because you have a hot April (that's you, Milwaukee).
They're going to win the division and return to the playoffs. Get used to it, America. There's a reason they're the best organization in the game.