Has the Cardinals’ luck finally run out?


There’s one thing that consistently gets lost in all the talk about how successful the Cardinals have been in the last decade or so: as recently as a few years ago, it didn’t seem that way at all. Between their World Series wins in 2006 and 2011, the Cardinals played in just one postseason series, a dispiriting NLDS sweep by the Dodgers in 2009, and underwent a rocky organizational shakeup when longtime GM Walt Jocketty was pushed out in favor of John Mozeliak in 2007.

Late in the 2011 season, down 10 1/2 games in the NL Wild Card race, it looked as if the Redbirds were about to come up short again. And fans were fed up.

“This isn’t a random occurrence; this has become a pattern,” wrote Bernie Miklasz on August 22nd of that year. “How does a team anchored by Albert Pujols make it to the postseason only once in a five-year stretch?”

What happened next made it easy to forget all of this. The Cards’ exhilarating September wild-card comeback was only the beginning. There was Skip Schumaker, given the start in center on a hunch, roping an NLDS-deciding double off Roy Halladay to end a 10-pitch at-bat. There was David Freese slashing .545/.600/1.091 in the NLCS, and there was Pujols’ historic three-homer night in Arlington. There was the ninth inning of Game Six… and the tenth… and the eleventh.

Oct 9, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; The St. Louis Cardinals celebrates after defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates in game five of the National League divisional series playoff baseball game at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals won 6-1. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

At some point, all of the comebacks and close calls and cardiac craziness no longer seemed impossible, or even improbable. They seemed inevitable. I don’t remember much about Game Seven of the 2011 World Series, but I remember that the Rangers scored first and no one was worried. The Cards were bound to win; it was fate. Another bonkers play or freak coincidence or out-of-nowhere star turn was always just around the corner. Non-Cardinals fans gave the phenomenon its own hashtag: #CardinalsDevilMagic.

To millions of Cards fans, of course, it was just plain magic, and it didn’t stop in 2011, even if it may have seemed like it at the time with the twin departures of Pujols and Tony La Russa in the offseason. The Redbirds kept rolling in 2012, a campaign personified by Pete Kozma, a career .236 minor-league hitter who was called up to replace the injured Rafael Furcal on August 31 and promptly slashed .333/.383/.569 in 82 PAs. Another solid September landed the Cards in the wild-card playoff, where they defeated the Braves thanks in large part to a controversial (and, by the way, entirely correct) infield-fly call. Another heart-stopping NLDS ended with a four-run ninth-inning comeback win over the Nationals, and the Cardinals fell just one victory short of a return trip to the World Series.

And the magic was certainly still there last year, when the club smashed a major-league record by hitting .330 with runners in scoring position. It was there in Matt Carpenter’s sudden leap from good to great, a breakout that earned him fourth place in MVP balloting at a position he’d learned to play in spring training. It was there in Michael Wacha’s sudden late-season emergence as an elite starter, yet another September surge, and yet another deep run into October. Sure, the 2013 season was at times a frustrating one, and the Cards ultimately fell just short of another World Series title, but the sense that the team always had a well of good luck to draw from, always had another trick up its sleeve, never really faded.

The Cardinals have played uninspiring, just-good-enough baseball all year long.

But 2014 has been a different story. In just about every way, this season has been even more frustrating than the last, an arduous slog first to catch the fast-starting Brewers and now to hold off the fast-finishing Pirates. The Cardinals have played uninspiring, just-good-enough baseball all year long. They’ve been depleted by injuries to Wacha, Yadier Molina, Jaime Garcia, and others. Allen Craig settled into a terrible slump and got shipped out of town, along with Joe Kelly, in a trade that by all accounts badly rattled the clubhouse.

Craig’s replacement, 22-year-old mega-prospect Oscar Taveras, struggled to the tune of a .530 OPS in his first 150 big-league PAs, and has repeatedly failed to gain Mike Matheny’s confidence. Shelby Miller, who placed third in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2013, fell into a sophomore slump he’s only recently begun to climb out of. Jason Motte’s return from Tommy John surgery could hardly have gone worse. The Redbirds’ knack for clutch hitting has regressed even harder than we thought it would, their power-hitting numbers have continued to decline, and their famed pitching depth evaporated so quickly that GM John Mozeliak went shopping for not one but two starters at the trade deadline.

The 2014 campaign has had its moments, but none that compare to the magic — Satanic or otherwise — of the past few years. Where is this team’s version of 2011 vintage Freese, or 2012 vintage Kozma, or 2013 vintage Wacha? Where’s the last-minute shot in the arm, the electrifying, previously-overlooked rookie, the overperforming scrap-tastic high-socked utility infielder? Where are the talismans, the Rally Squirrels, the Happy Flights, the camel suits? Where is the preposterous good fortune, the intoxicating sense of inevitability? Where’s the charm?

The Cardinals may win the NL Central. Hell, they may win the World Series. But heading into the final weekend of the regular season, it sure doesn’t feel like it, and this, too, was inevitable. If the Cards’ luck has indeed run out, if their well of sensational barn-burning triumphs has indeed run dry, it’s only because such a thing never existed in any real sense in the first place. Deep down, we always knew this. We knew that regression would set in, that the pendulum would swing the other way, that the highs would eventually followed by some lows.

That doesn’t make the fall any easier. What does, of course, is the fact that even when it feels like everything is going wrong, next week the Cardinals will still be where they should be: playing baseball in October.