By MIKE FITZPATRICK AP Baseball Writer
NEW YORK (AP) – On the morning after the trade deadline in late July, the St. Louis Cardinals were a .500 team that sat 7 1/2 games off a playoff spot.
Even with the new slugger Nolan Arenado at third base, it seemed that a season that began with high expectations would slip away.
Their next move? While other National League challengers added stars such as Max Scherzer, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez, the Redbirds went for a couple of struggles with starting throws in their late 30s: Jon Lester and JA Happ.
It raised many eyebrows, to say the least.
But seven weeks later, see how high these cardinals have climbed.
St. Louis rode on the timeless arm of Adam Wainwright on top of a gray beard rotation, and has risen to position after the season with the latest wave. The confident Cardinals hold the second NL wild card with a game over San Diego on their way into a central three-game home series against the Padres this weekend.
“There is still something to be said for wisdom,” manager Mike Shildt explained.
After scoring 25 races in a three-game road for the New York Mets, the Cardinals (76-69) have won five straight and seven of eight.
Muscular outfielder Tyler O’Neill (26 homers, .876 OPS) from Canada has emerged as a dangerous number 3 striker between co-dumpers Paul Goldschmidt and Arenado.
In the absence of injured ace Jack Flaherty, 40-year-old Wainwright (16-7, 2.88 ERA) has thrown himself into the Cy Young Award conversation during a youth season. The veteran basket baller is 9-2 with a 2.02 ERA in his last 12 starts, and goes at least six rounds each time.
Lester and Happ have hardly been so dominant since they arrived. But they have hit effectively for the most part and taken the ball in turns, giving the consistency of an injury-ravaged staff and relieving some of the pressure put on a bullpen who is now taking his step after a wild start to the season.
“They have stabilized our rotation, for sure,” Shildt said.
St. Louis still has problems closer – Alex Reyes was an All-Star in July, but recently lost his job due to a series of tough excursions.
In the lineup, the biggest change has come at shortstop, where rookie Edmundo Sosa has replaced the discouraging Paul DeJong, an All-Star in 2019.
And with 39-year-old catcher Yadier Molina still anchoring a sensational defense that includes five gold-gloved winners (including Wainwright), the big Cardinals’ major in defensive running is saved, according to The Fielding Bible.
“Big defense may not be the sexiest thing, but it does help you win a lot of games,” said relief Andrew Miller. “In many ways, we should be grateful that it has been a long season because it has given us time.”
After falling one season-worst four games below .500 on June 27, the Cardinals show their winning pedigree when it counts in September. Their 11-game victory Tuesday night in New York vaulted them into the postseason position for the first time since they stuck to a slim lead in NL Central on May 30.
St. Louis was 3 1/2 games out of the second wild card on September 7, with three teams to pass. Now the Cardinals are controlling their own destiny as they hunt for a third playoff in a row and 15th in the last 22 years.
“We do the little things that allow us to compete,” Shildt said. “We also have a mindset that we expect to play baseball in October.”
Strong base run. Sound basic. Cardinal Road.
“We’ve had a lot of moving parts for this club,” said Shildt. “But we have not lost that confidence at all in what we do.”
“It’s just about consistency,” he added. “It’s a mentality and expectation that we should get it done.”
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