Posted on September 29, 2019, by Bryan Zarpentine

St. Louis Cardinals
Image via sports.yahoo.com

It took a few extra days and a little extra drama, but the St. Louis Cardinals finally managed to lock up the NL Central division title on the last day of the MLB regular season. With a 9-0 win over the Cubs on Sunday, St. Louis officially won the NL Central for the first time since 2015. The Cardinals ended up finishing two games ahead of the Brewers, who will now play the Nationals in the National League Wild Card Game. Meanwhile, the Cardinals will face the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS, snapping a three-year postseason drought.

“We believed in these guys from the start,’” said Cardinals president John Mozeliak. “It took a while, but they persevered and played just like we thought all along.”

Of the six division winners, the Cardinals arguably faced the most difficult road. They spent most of the season in a tight, three-team race with the Cubs and Brewers. A late-season surge by Milwaukee combined with a four-game losing streak nearly cost St. Louis the division title. But with the Cardinals facing a possible one-game playoff had they lost on Sunday and the Brewers had won, Jack Flaherty stepped up with seven shutout innings against the Cubs. The Cards also scored nine runs in the first four innings, allowing them to avoid any late-game pressure. It gave the club a few innings to relax before the explosion of the postgame celebration.

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“You can’t script it much better,” said Cardinals manager Mike Shildt after Sunday’s game. “We can’t think our fans enough. I know how much it means to them too, and we’re excited to move forward as well.”

Heading into the season, most people would have viewed the Cardinals as the third-leading contender in the NL Central. After all, the Brewers were fresh off a run to the NLCS and the Cubs still have the core of the team that won the World Series in 2016 still in place. St. Louis missing the playoffs in three straight years didn’t help either. But lower expectations seemed to suit the Cardinals.

The offseason addition of Paul Goldschmidt paid big dividends for St. Louis. He turned out to be the team’s most productive offensive player. Outside of Goldschmidt, the Cardinals didn’t have many standout players. But they got consistent contributions from all areas of their roster. On the pitching side of things, Flaherty and Dakota Hudson emerged as frontline starters while veterans Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha took a backseat as reliable back-end starters. The balance between pitching and hitting and overall consistency from the entire roster helped the Cardinals surpass expectations and find their way back to the postseason.

“There was a lot of talk about being out of the playoffs for three years,” said Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. “So to win the Central Division championship is a big deal. There’s a lot of flags (World Series championship banners) up there. We’d like to add one more.”

In the playoffs, the Cardinals will once again be underdogs. Both the Dodgers and Braves will be favored over the Cardinals to reach the World Series from the National League. However, their recent three-year playoff drought aside, the Cardinals have plenty of postseason pedigree, as well as a nice collection of veterans who won’t be phased by playoff baseball. Those on the outside may not be big believes in the Cardinals, but after being forced to play 162 meaningful games, they feel good about their chances heading into the 2019 postseason.

“We like our team, and we like it a lot,’” said catcher Yadier Molina after Sunday’s game. “That hasn’t changed all year. We think we’re good. Now, we’re about to see how good we really are.”

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