Sooner or later, a baseball team shows you who they are. Baseball is relentless, so it happens. Over the course of a 162-game season, an identity is forged and a pattern is dictated. For the 2018 St. Louis Cardinals, that path hasn't been an easy one, but it's looking clearer than ever recently.
The Cardinals have won 10 of 14 heading into the second game of a three-game set in Kansas City, winning the past four series over the Chicago Cubs, Colorado Rockies, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Miami Marlins. They have won the last two games by a total of 14-1, showing a dominance that had been missing for months.
How are they doing it? It's not a one sentence answer, so let's take a look at five ways the Cardinals have gotten their act together and are in the fight for a playoff berth.
5) Better defense.
There was a time this summer where the Cardinals made committing 2-4 errors in a game seem easy. The infielders would boot a grounder, make a bad throw, or an outfielder would misplay a hit. Jose Martinez's footwork, Jedd Gyorko's glove, and Paul DeJong's arm were all suspects in the crimes that led to the Cardinals leading the league in errors at one point.
Guess what? The sun rises today with the Birds tied with the Texas Rangers for the league lead, and that's due to the fact that St. Louis has only committed five errors since the roster overhaul on July 28. Better defense means the other team isn't getting extra chances and your pitcher isn't wasting pitches. More wins happen. Harrison Bader playing most days in center field while Matt Carpenter taking over first primarily has done wonders for this team's defense.
4) Role-oriented bullpen sure does help matters
Since the team cut the fat two weeks ago, the unit has functioned more properly. Bud Norris and Jordan Hicks are no longer the lone reliable assets. Long-arms like Daniel Poncedeleon take the pressure off while short-fuses like Dakota Hudson sure do help. Newcomer Chasen Shreve and Mike Mayers have performed well in their roles, and the group isn't blowing up games anymore. There are still hiccups like any team, but each night isn't doomed if the starter can't go six innings.
3) The Buddha Effect
Since Mark Budaska made the trek from Memphis and took John Mabry's spot, multiple players have shown a newfound spark or found a way to sustain a streak. Kolten Wong missed time, came back, and picked up right where left off. Simple things such as Budaska telling Marcell Ozuna to use both eyes when hitting paid off against the Cubs. Mabry's message was either tired or missing in action. A dull play that the crowd had fallen asleep to inside the clubhouse. Buddha is reaching players, and taking a direct approach with guys like DeJong, who is picking it up this month. Overall, the Cardinals have scored at least five runs in a game on eight different occasions in their last 14 games.
2) An unreal Matt Carpenter.
The man was enjoying a fine "I told you so" comeback a month ago, but Carpenter has been something else since July 11. This is simply insane hitting. In his last 30 games, Carpenter has slugged 16 home runs, compiled an OPS over 1.200, and forgotten how to be ordinary. Forget about the 2013 model; this year's Carpenter defies all expectations, logic, hopes, and dreams. He's gone off the reservation, wading into territory held last by a guy named Pujols. If you want to know how valuable Carpenter truly is, think of where this team is without his efforts. It's called the Most Valuable Player award; not the Most Valuable Player on a Great Team award. Carpenter has thrown the team on his back, carving a .991 OPS along with a versatile array of defense.
1) A manager who knows what he's doing.
All you must do is listen to Fox Sports Midwest play-by-play maestro Dan McLaughlin to understand the Mike Shildt effect. "Refreshing" has only been used about 89 times since Shildt took over for the departed Mike Matheny, bringing a battle-tested mind into the dugout for the first time in seven seasons. If you want to know how bad Matheny was, just look at how good Shild has been and the difference shown in such a short timeframe.
Pitchers aren't pushed constantly, late game moves aren't obviously incoherent, and the team is simply better prepared to win. Shild manages like an expert poker player pushing the rest of the table to keep up instead of a child blindly picking through a paintbrush set. The effect is easy to detect, and the biggest reason the Cardinals have went from a team brushing with the .500 mark to six games better than .500 today.
Can they keep it up? I think so. The lineup is dialed in, young guns are providing backup, and the schedule shouldn't intimate anytime soon. The Cardinals put a stranglehold on two hot teams recently in Colorado and Pittsburgh, so no one ahead should pose a bigger threat, even the resurgent Washington Nationals. The road to the playoffs no longer seems like an endless mountain...but more like a mere hill.
It only took 110 games, a manager change, and roster shuffle to get this team on the right track. They stood pat at the deadline and have backed up John Mozeliak's premonition that this may be a solid team after all.
Can they make it into the playoffs? I can't tell you that, but I can assure you this recent play isn't a temporary patch, but the beginning of something new....and quite refreshing.