The St. Louis Cardinals missed the playoffs last season and haven’t missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 2007 and '08, so falling short again would qualify as tough times in Cardinals Nation.
I go on St. Louis radio every so often, and the running thought throughout the season from hosts, such as the great Bernie Miklasz, has been that the Cardinals simply aren’t good enough -- they've looked like a .500 team.
And that certainly appeared to be the case. The bullpen blew some games early as the Cardinals faltered to a 3-9 start. There was the wacky Matt Adams experiment in left field. Manager Mike Matheny again was having trouble settling on an infield rotation. Free agent Dexter Fowler got off to a slow start, as did fellow outfielder Stephen Piscotty. At the All-Star break, the team was two games under .500 at 43-45. The one hopeful sign was that the Cubs were coughing along with the same record and both teams were just 5½ games behind the Brewers, and many expected Milwaukee to fade in the second half.
So here we are in mid-September … and the Cardinals are right there. Of course they are. They’re the Cardinals! You thought they were going to go away easily, America? They were 66-66 on Aug. 30 but since then have gone 11-3 entering Friday's action to leave them tied with the Brewers at three games behind the Cubs and 2½ games behind the Rockies for the second wild card.
So how did they get here? We can focus on four surprising contributors:
Tommy Pham: Here’s what the Cardinals thought of Pham heading into the season: He started in the minors. That’s not a positive outlook for a 29-year-old outfielder. Pham had been a solid backup the past two seasons and was essentially the final cut, squeezed out by Adams and Jose Martinez (more on him in a second). "It came down to one spot," Matheny said at the time. "And sometimes the best thing that can be done is to tell the truth. And the truth is another guy (Martinez) truly earned that spot."
Now? Pham leads the Cardinals with 5.0 WAR, tied for 16th among all MLB position players, even though he wasn't called up until May 5. He’s the first Cardinals player with 20 home runs and 20 steals since Reggie Sanders in 2004 and has provided strong defense in both left and center.
It’s been a remarkable journey for a player originally drafted way back in 2006. Pham has a degenerative eye condition known as keratoconus. From Derrick Goold’s excellent May feature on Pham’s eye issues:
Keratoconus causes structural abnormalities in the cornea, warping it and leaving it similar to the shape of a football’s tip. Instead of light bending toward the retina to be processed as an image, the light scatters, splinters. Halos or double images can appear. Pham said he is legally blind in his left eye due to keratoconus.
“It’s like driving a car with someone who is holding a jar of Vaseline,” said Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler, a Beverly Hills, California-based surgeon and ophthalmologist, “and then they smear it all over your windshield.”
Pham is in a constant battle to make sure his special contact lenses are fitting properly. As Goold wrote, “One flaw can throw his vision off.” That makes Pham’s breakout one of the best stories of the season. Even then, there’s an element of good luck involved. He was called up because Piscotty landed on the DL and Fowler was battling a sore shoulder. In Pham's first series, he had six hits and three home runs against the Braves. He hit .333 in his first 20 games. If he hadn’t hit right away, who knows what would have happened.
Jose Martinez: He entered spring training as a 28-year-old with 18 career plate appearances in the majors. The Cardinals purchased him in May 2016 from the Royals, and he hit .278 with 11 home runs in Triple-A. Solid, but unspectacular. As a 6-foot-7 outfielder/first baseman not known for his defense, he looked more like Triple-A roster depth than anything.
He revamped his swing -- yes, creating a better launch angle to hit more fly balls and fewer grounders -- and made the roster with a big spring training. Now he’s hitting .314/.379/.546. He’d always made hard contact and didn't strike out much; now he’s learned how to tap into his natural extra-base power. He’s hit .356 in the second half as he continues to get more playing time (playing first base of late, with Matt Carpenter sliding over to third).
Paul DeJong: A fourth-round pick in 2015 out of Illinois State, DeJong had a solid year in Double-A in 2016, hitting .260 with 22 home runs, although the 144 strikeouts were a concern. He played third base, with 11 starts at shortstop sprinkled in, but looked comfortable enough there that the Cardinals sent him to the Arizona Fall League to continue working at shortstop. The Cardinals had Aledmys Diaz, a 2016 All-Star, but Diaz had slowed down in the second half and nobody thought much of his defense. Hey, it couldn’t hurt trying DeJong at shortstop. Still, he wasn’t on prospect radar lists heading into 2017.
The Cardinals couldn’t have dreamed of this: 22 home runs in 93 games. DeJong was called up May 28, originally to play some second base when Kolten Wong landed on the DL. DeJong didn’t get his first start at shortstop until June 24, his 21st game. The job was his a couple of days later. The defensive metrics say he’s played an average shortstop -- plus-2 defensive runs saved -- and the power has held up despite a poor 108/14 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
This is how you turn things around: two guys who started the year in Triple-A and another guy who began the season as the 25th man on the roster.
Luke Weaver: Even as the Cardinals were scuffling, one key was that the rotation had been healthy (well, other than Alex Reyes blowing out in spring training) until Adam Wainwright landed on the DL in late July and then again in August. Still, the Cardinals have used just eight starting pitchers (and one of those for just one start). They traded Mike Leake in August, in part because Weaver had been called up and quickly established himself as an impact performer. After beating the Reds on Thursday, he’s 6-1 with a 1.89 ERA in seven starts (and three relief appearances).
Weaver is proving to be another astute first-round pick by the Cardinals, taken 27th overall out of Florida State in 2014. The right-hander's slight frame masks a fastball that sits at 92-94 mph, and he throws across his body a bit, creating some deception in the delivery. But with fastball command and a plus changeup and curveball, he’s effective against left-handed batters, who are hitting .171 against him. He doesn’t come with the hype that Reyes had, but it appears that Weaver knows what he’s doing out there.
So the Cardinals are still alive in the playoff race. Can they make it? They still have two games left against the Cubs in this series, and then end the season with a seven-game homestand against the Cubs and Brewers. They entered Friday 4-8 against the Cubs and 7-9 against the Brewers. But these are the Cardinals -- they almost always find a way, and this is starting to feel a lot like 2011. I don’t need to remind Cardinals fans about how that season ended.