The red-hot St. Louis Cardinals are finding their stride at the right time

The St. Louis Cardinals shouldn't be here, leading the race for the second and final wild card in the National League and certainly not by a suddenly comfortable margin. Just three weeks or so ago, I was on local radio in St. Louis and the host was relating that it had been a rather desultory season for the Cardinals.

The team was hanging around .500, barely on the fringes of the wild-card race, the Milwaukee Brewers were running away with the NL Central lead and there wasn't really any reason to expect a turnaround. The offense was mediocre, the rotation was mediocre, Jack Flaherty had just landed on the injured list and, worst of all, there was a general lack of any enthusiasm about the team other than Adam Wainwright's resurgent season.

Mind you, that was the local viewpoint, from a city that obsesses about its baseball team and expects a playoff season every year. Usually, that's the case. The Cardinals haven't had a losing season since 2007, and while they did have a postseason dry spell from 2016 to 2018, they've been in the playoffs 14 times in the previous 21 campaigns. During the radio spot, we talked about which free-agent shortstop might be the best fit for 2022, not how the Cards might somehow make the playoffs.

Well, here's a warning for the Brewers and the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants and the Atlanta Braves (if they hold off the Philadelphia Phillies to win the NL East): Watch out for the Cardinals. St. Louis is red-hot, riding a 10-game winning streak after Tuesday's 2-1 win over the Brewers. It's the Cardinals' first 10-game winning streak since 2001 -- Albert Pujols' rookie season -- and only the Baltimore Orioles (1999) and Miami Marlins (never) had gone that long without one.

Just two weeks ago, the Cardinals were 69-68 after losing four in a row to the Brewers and Dodgers. They were 3.5 games behind the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres in the wild-card race, tied with the New York Mets, and with the Phillies also ahead of St. Louis. According to FanGraphs, the Cardinals' playoff odds were 2.8% (and had actually bottomed out on Aug. 8 at 1.3%).

This is why they play 162 games. The Cardinals have gone 12-1 since and now hold a four-game lead over the Reds and Padres, pending San Diego's result against San Francisco. St. Louis' playoff odds are now close to 90%, and the Cardinals' season now resembles a couple of others from the not-to-distant past: the 2006 team that captured the NL Central with an 83-78 record but then won the World Series; and the 2011 team that was 8.5 out of the wild card with 21 games to play but then closed on a 16-5 run, clinched a playoff spot on the final day and went on to claim the World Series trophy.

2011 was the year Wainwright missed with Tommy John surgery. Who would have thought that a decade later, after turning 40 years old in August, Wainwright would be having one of the best seasons of his career? He is 16-7 with a 2.89 ERA and ranks second in the majors with 196⅓ innings pitched. As Tyler Kepner of the New York Times wrote recently, in this era of fireballing starters when high velocity -- and short outings -- are the norm, Wainwright is a pitcher, thriving despite a fastball that averages under 90 mph.

It follows that this mad dash to the finish began with Wainwright's start against the Dodgers on Sept. 8. He pitched 8⅓ innings, grabbing the win in a 5-4 decision after Giovanny Gallegos got the final two outs. The next day was another one-run victory over the Dodgers; Tyler O'Neill hit the go-ahead home run in the fifth, and four relievers combined for five scoreless, one-hit innings of relief, with Gallegos recording another save.

The bullpen has been a huge key during this 13-game stretch, with a 2.31 ERA while averaging 3.6 innings per game. Things did get a little hairy in the ninth inning on Tuesday when the Brewers loaded the bases with two outs against Gallegos -- with some help from an unconventional and controversial decision from Cardinals manager Mike Shildt. With two outs and runners at first and third, Shildt elected to intentionally walk Christian Yelich, putting the winning run in scoring position, and instead pitch to pinch hitter Pablo Reyes. Now a single wins the game instead of merely tying it. Via ESPN Stats & Information, the Cardinals' win probability was 80% before the walk to Yelich and 72% with the bases loaded. Shildt decreased his team's chances of winning the game but obviously preferred the right-on-right matchup of Gallegos against Reyes -- and Gallegos struck him out on a 2-2 slider.

Look at how the Cardinals shut down the Brewers. Starter Jake Woodford outdueled Brandon Woodruff for five scoreless innings. Alex Reyes, the closer for most of the season, fanned the side in the sixth after a leadoff walk, pumping 97 mph gas. Genesis Cabrera pitched a 1-2-3 seventh with two K's, including blowing a 99 mph strike three past Luis Urias. Veteran Luis Garcia has come out of nowhere to post a 2.83 ERA over 28⅔ innings; he hit 98 mph several times in the eighth. That's their formula for success: Five and dive from every starter except Wainwright and turn it over to the bullpen.

The Cardinals' offense actually hasn't torn it up during this stretch, hitting .251/.303/.442. O'Neill, the left fielder with the Terminator physique and Gold Glove defense, has been the hottest hitter, registering a 1.009 OPS, five home runs and 13 RBIs. Nolan Arenado has added four home runs, and Dylan Carlson has delivered some key hits. Still, this is a team that has to win with pitching and defense; they lead the majors with plus-83 defensive runs saved. Can that combination work in October? Certainly, the Cardinals don't match up on paper against either the Dodgers or Giants if they do make it to the wild-card game, let alone a series of longer length.

Still, assuming Wainwright is lined up to pitch that contest -- his next scheduled start is Thursday and then probably Sept. 29, which sets him on plenty of rest for the wild-card game -- the Cardinals have a chance, even if they have to face Max Scherzer. And after that? Anything can happen. Cardinals fans might remember that Tony La Russa rode veteran Chris Carpenter and the bullpen back in the 2011 playoffs, using quick hooks and churning through relievers. This year's Cardinals have Wainwright in the old man role and a bullpen that is peaking at the right time.

One thing is for sure: The 2021 Cardinals' season no longer looks so unexciting.