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Opinion | Go ahead and call it a comeback! Cardinals return to power in NL Central

Behind a ruthless 69 pitch effort from Jack Flaherty and a barrage of home runs, the Cardinals buried the Cubs on Sunday at Busch Stadium.
Credit: AP
St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Carlos Martinez (18) celebrates as his teammates rush the field after the Cardinals defeated the Chicago Cubs, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Scott Kane)

ST. LOUIS — There's a saying used often by a locally-produced St. Louis Blues newspaper called St. Louis Game Time: it's almost always never easy.

Now, that saying was meant to reflect the hardships and constant frustration associated with the local hockey team. Up until June 12, it was an often-used saying that culminated summer depression-fueled drinking.

Since the middle of June, the Cardinals clearly adopted it from the defending Stanley Cup Champions, borrowing it like a dented badge of honor to wage war on the hearts of Cardinal Nation's most faithful.

Example: It took 162 games for the Cardinals to finish the job. Against all odds and adversaries, they took down the Chicago Cubs in convincing fashion. As far as baseball games go in 2019 at Busch Stadium, it was rather boring. A 9-0 assault on the Cubs, a team suddenly falling backwards after four-year reign near the top of the league. The guard changed over the past 10 days, starting with St. Louis' sneak attack at Wrigley Field.

A stumble in Arizona allowed the theatrics to stay afloat, a trial and tribulation that extended into the weekend with a pair of discouraging losses to a deflated Chicago roster that registered as a B-side to their normal attack. I mean, if it weren't for Colorado's Travis Story hitting a walk-off home run against Milwaukee, the Cardinals would have played baseball on Monday.

Be that as it may, the comeback was complete without game #163. Behind a ruthless 69 pitch effort from Jack Flaherty and a barrage of home runs, the Cardinals buried the Cubs on Sunday at Busch Stadium.

It was sweet revenge, served St. Louis hot instead of Windy City cold. The Birds made the Small Bears sweat, bleeding out the lineup and roster of their opponent bad enough that Joe Maddon, who will be relieved of his job this week, let Ben Zobrist pitch the eighth inning. A former division giant returning to a throne that it held for the better part of two decades by taking down the new kid on the block.

Or maybe the Cardinals are the new kids again. When you look past Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, and Matt Carpenter, the roster does look rather new. Tommy Edman was in high school when the Cardinals hoisted their eleventh World Series trophy. Harrison Bader was swinging an aluminum bat. Marcell Ozuna was becoming a spot-on Marlins' fans' radar. Paul DeJong was in Illinois. Dexter Fowler was hitting triples into the gaps at Coors Field. Flaherty was California avoiding those mighty aluminum bats. Paul Goldschmidt was just getting warmed up.

Things were different the last time the Cardinals won it all, and fairly different than the 2015 division title win, where St. Louis won 100 games but looked like a tired grandpa at the Zoo by the time October arrived. The Cubs handled them easily in the playoffs that month, and a couple seasons later, celebrated a clinching effort on Busch Stadium soil.

RELATED: What you should know about the Braves as the Cardinals head to the NLDS

Last year, the Cubs beat the Cardinals 10-5 at Wrigley Field on the final afternoon of the regular season, casting a shade of doubt on the sea of red looking on from the dugout there and the city four hours south. There were some in the fan base that wondered if the Cardinals were headed for a complete overhaul.

And then Goldschmidt arrived. Andrew Miller followed. Flaherty emerged after a first half fog. Wainwright regained respect. Miles Mikolas found his groove in the second half. Dakota Hudson turned heads. DeJong and Ozuna provided pop. Kolten Wong ascended to complete threat status, swinging a bat nearly as mighty as he could swing his glove. Molina pushed against Father Time again, recovering from a thumb injury that made certain people cry about his extension, look around for Carson Kelly, or wonder about Andrew Knizner.

In true John Mozeliak fashion, the Cardinals retooled on the fly, changing out the tires, putting a few new plugs under the hood, and slapping a fresh coat of paint on their vehicle. Without completely stripping down for parts, the Cardinals remained competitive. They won 88 games last year, just three less than what was needed this year to secure the division.

Now, they head into October as underdogs, which is a fitting label for a team that created nearly equal parts doubt and intrigue this season. They were down and out in early July, and once again in the first week of August. Mozeliak made them a challenge, and they accepted it. No moves were made at the deadline, so Mike Shildt used the chess pieces he had to pull out an improbable comeback.

Credit to Shildt, who I doubted at one point in the season, even resorting to Mike Matheny jokes in an article that raised the question of how much change actually occurred in that dugout. As it turns out, a lot flipped over this year, including Shildt turning my head while sustaining my curiosity. He's not perfect, but still just a guy with one MLB season under his belt. A division title season.

The change in management left easy-to-spot rewards.

The base-running improved drastically. Carpenter didn't get thrown out on the bases every other series. The defense sat atop the Major Leagues in efficiency, thanks to Edman's work at third and Goldschmidt anchoring the vacuum at first base. Speaking of Edman, Shildt stuck with the breakout player of the year even when his bat softened, and his versatile defense was stretched a tad too thin. As August rolled into September, Edman's bat provided the most bite at a fraction of the cost.

The bullpen, while shaky and worn down by the end, was a strength. Miller may have put a nasty stamp on the season during the final week, but he was a plus-arm this year, gaining back some of that 2016 magic. Carlos Martinez, unable to start games, picked up where Jordan Hicks left off in late June. John Gant and John Brebbia may have given you an ulcer this past week, but they were rock solid through for nearly five months.

Giovanny Gallegos, the "who is that" arm picked up in the fire sale type Luke Voit trade last July, became one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. A calm and cool demeanor doesn't share the sheets with an arsenal of pitches that took many Major League hitters back to high school sloppiness. He's only getting started.

Out of all the talent breakouts this season, Flaherty's dominance has the loudest, and longest, roar. He went from "intriguing rookie" to Greg Maddux filth mode with more cheddar on his pitches. Maddon called him "the real deal," and he's not kidding. Flaherty's 0.97 WHIP led the National League and his 231 strikeouts ranked in the top echelon of the Majors. And don't worry about him pitching on Sunday. He looked like a cook in the kitchen testing out baking methods, toying with the Cubs and turning their bats to Swiss cheese. It was entertaining and quite ... nice.

The Atlanta Braves are tough, but so are the Cardinals. The series could go either way. It'll come down to timely hitting, bullpen efficiency, and which pitcher can take over a game. This is where I tell you Flaherty will most likely pitch Game 2 and 5, if needed.

The Braves will be picked to win, but predictions are as useful as speed limit signs on Interstate 70. The records are blank. Everyone is 0-0 again. Anything can happen in the playoffs.

The good news is the Cardinals have gotten back to the postseason after a four-year pilgrimage through not-good-enough town. A rural area of 80+ wins and unsatisfied customers.

They are kings of the Midwest again. While Chicago and Pittsburgh look to new beginnings, the Cardinals are setting the new course. I don't expect them to go easily, because easy is simply not in the Cardinals' vocabulary.

Atlanta should tread lightly.

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