If it seems like the Cardinals have been in the playoffs every year since Stan Musial was a Little Leaguer, it's because they almost have (St. Louis has only been to three consecutive playoffs, but they've made two of the last three World Series, and four of the last ten.)
All this October success is enough to make one suspect that Tony La Russa and Mike Matheny might have a special cache of Cardinal red voodoo dolls, ready for emergency late-season deployment upon their NL Central rivals.
After trailing the Brewers for most of the regular season, the Cardinals are on top again, leading the Central by a comfortable 4.5 games with 19 to play. No one but Chicago northsiders believes in curses anymore, so to what do we attribute Matheny's squad's almost mystical autumnal resurgence? Stick a fork in that voodoo doll, because here are four simple, non-mythical moves the Cardinals made to garner this division lead.
Signing Jhonny Peralta
After the Tigers' let their Biogenesis-banned shortstop walk after the 2013 season, the Cardinals swooped in, signing Peralta to a four-year, $53 million deal. After a season of trotting out Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma, St. Louis bet on Peralta being the best version of himself (not an easy bet, as Peralta turned 32 this season).
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All Peralta has done is hit .268/.342/.459, smack 20 homers, drive in 65, anchor the Cardinals' lineup, and post a 3.9 oWAR, the third-highest of his career (stats via Baseball Reference). Perhaps we should search the Cardinal clubhouse for doll pins.
Timely promotion of Kolten Wong
After 23 year-old second baseman Kolten Wong got some run in last year's playoffs (Wong was picked off to end Game 4 of the World Series), the Cardinals went ahead and made him their Opening Day second baseman. Wong has been good in his first full major league season, knocking 11 home runs and stealing 20 bases, joining with Peralta to form a dynamic if unexpected duo up the middle for St. Louis.
Signing Pat Neshek
Neshek has been one of the best baseball stories of the year. After signing a minor-league contract with the Cardinals in the spring, Neshek has destroyed hitters with his funky right-handed delivery, striking out 61 and walking just 7 (!) in 60 innings out of the pen. The journeyman has given up 9 runs in those 60 innings, and carries a WHIP of 0.667. Neshek also played in the All-Star Game near his hometown in Minneapolis. Neshek's bullpen destruction cost the Cardinals $1 million.
Yadier Molina returning from injury, and signing A.J. Pierzynski in the interim
So maybe we can chalk this one up to some Midwestern witch doctor: Yadier Molina returned to the Cardinals lineup last week, just in time for the stretch run. The catcher had missed nearly two months after tearing a ligament in his thumb on July 9th.
When Molina went down, the Cardinals trailed Milwaukee by two games in the Central -- when Molina returned on August 29th, St. Louis was down 1.5 games to the Brewers. St. Louis held serve by signing the just-average A.J. Pierzynski (.257/.313/.324 in 24 games) in the interim, and deploying light-hitting catcher Tony Cruz as well.
Sometimes you don't have to be good -- you just have to tread water until your best player returns (and, continuing the water analogy, it helps when the team formerly ahead of you in the standings finally sinks to the bottom after being in over their heads all summer).