The St. Louis Cardinals have a commanding 2-0 lead on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship series, and could add to it on Monday night in Game 3. Cardinals ace right-hander Adam Wainwright, one of the game’s best, will be on the mound against rookie left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu. The Dodgers offense has produced three runs in 14 innings of the series and Wainwright, a workhorse who posted a 2.94 ERA in the regular season, has allowed only two runs over 16 innings this postseason.
The way both teams have looked so far this series — the Dodgers almost lifeless and the Cardinals dominant — Game 3 bodes well for St. Louis. But the mere fact that they are in this position has long since become old hat for them. Since 2000, they have reached the NLCS eight times, reached the World Series three times and won two of them. No other team in the majors has reached the championship series round as many times as the Cardinals in that span. Only Boston and San Francisco have won as many World Series titles as St. Louis in the past 12 years.
Over the past decade or so, so much attention has been paid to the big spending teams (Dodgers and Yankees), the underdogs (Diamondbacks, Angels and Rays) and streak breakers (Red Sox). The Cardinals, a mid-market team, have been almost mind-numbingly consistent throughout it all. They have done it with a impressive ability to identify talent in the draft, develop that talent, spend money wisely, make deft trades and build depth.
They won the World Series in 2006 with a veteran cast of characters: Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter, David Eckstein, Jim Edmonds, Jeff Suppan, a young Yadier Molina and led by Tony LaRussa. They won again in 2011 with Pujols, but with a distinctly different team around him: veterans Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, and homegrown talents like David Freese and Allen Craig.
They have returned to the NLCS twice now since letting Pujols leave via free agency. They replaced him with Craig and haven’t missed much. They used the compensation pick they received when Pujols signed with the Angels to draft Michael Waca with the 19th overall pick in the 2012, and the rookie right-hander has enjoyed a breakout and brilliant postseason. Craig, who is hurt but hopes to return by the World Series should the Cardinals advance, is an eighth round pick who has produced the following triple slash line since Pujols left: .311/.364/.488 with 35 home runs and 189 RBI over two seasons. The money the Cardinals didn’t commit to re-signing Pujols gave them the flexibility to give extensions to Molina, Wainwright and Craig.
A look at their 2009 draft reveals their uncanny ability to identify talent and then develop the players. It’s extremely rare anomaly that one draft class produces this many impact major leaguers, but the Cardinals found the following players that year: first-rounder Shelby Miller (a middle of the rotation starter and NL rookie of the year candidate), third-rounder Joe Kelly (a back end starter), 13th-rounder Matt Carpenter (an all-star second baseman and leadoff hitter), 21st-rounder Trevor Rosenthal (a flame-throwing closer) and 23rd-rounder Matt Adams (a power-hitting back-up first baseman).
Wainwright’s right arm, and perhaps the Cardinals plethora of young and powerful bullpen arms, will be on display on Monday night, and their lineup will show its unified ability to grind down opposing pitchers with patience. But more than anything, the Cardinals ability to be so competitive for so long will again shine. And regardless of who wins the World Series this season, it’s hard not to see them as one of the early NL favorites for next season given the talent and youth on their roster.
8 p.m. on TBS
St. Louis: Wainwright (19-9, 2.94); Los Angeles: Ryu (14-8, 3.00)