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The St. Louis Cardinals, with a crafty rotation and history of devil magic, are red hot

“We’ve kind of scrapped. We’ve pieced some things together,” Adam Wainwright said. “Right now, we’re in a good situation where we’re controlling our own destiny, which is all you can ask for.” (Morry Gash/AP)
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MILWAUKEE — People always seem to forget Adam Wainwright would be the hardest-throwing guy on at least a few entire continents if he were pitching there instead. These days, everyone keeps asking him how he is pulling this off, how a guy with an 89-mph fastball is staging a credible Cy Young campaign during a late playoff push at age 40. But Wainwright suggests those people are missing the point. Plop him onto Antarctica, he thinks, or maybe even parts of Europe, and he might as well be Bob Gibson.

“For much of the world, I’m a very hard thrower,” Wainwright argued before his red-hot St. Louis Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers in the first game of a four-game series Monday. He may be right. He was also kidding.

In this part of the world, Wainwright is better described as wily, the kind of pitcher who won’t blow hitters away — though he feigned offense when presented with that notion. His colleagues in the Cardinals’ rotation, at least the ones who have been healthy as St. Louis won 12 straight games to take command of the second National League wild-card spot, would need some creative stat sorting to look like fireballers, too.

Similarly, the Cardinals probably would be the most powerful offense on some continents. But with the 18th-best on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the majors and fewer homers than all but eight teams entering Thursday, they do not earn that descriptor here. Some places, their bullpen might lead in spin rate or velocity or even strikeouts. That place is not the 2021 playoff picture.

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But the Cardinals are far and away the best defensive team in the majors, having converted 44 outs above average and accumulated a dozen more defensive runs saved than the next-closest team. At a time when many teams play a game centered on the three true outcomes (strikeouts, walks and home runs) that avoid defense altogether, the Cardinals are trying to ride a rotation with the fourth-lowest average velocity in the majors, a good defense and some late-season magic into the playoffs and beyond.

“We’ve kind of scrapped. We’ve pieced some things together,” said Wainwright, who allowed five runs in four innings Thursday at Milwaukee but saw his team respond with eight unanswered runs for an 8-5 victory that kept the winning streak alive. “Right now, we’re in a good situation where we’re controlling our own destiny, which is all you can ask for.”

As compelling as their unorthodoxy is, they have a hard thrower or two on the way. Opening Day starter Jack Flaherty threw to hitters before Tuesday’s game, and Manager Mike Shildt couldn’t stop himself from smiling when he was asked whether Flaherty may work his way back from a shoulder strain by opening a game or two for the Cardinals down the stretch. (He is in line to face the Cubs during a doubleheader Friday in Chicago.) Fellow right-hander Dakota Hudson, working his way back from Tommy John surgery, was scratched from a rehab start Wednesday in case the major league team needed him imminently. More velocity may soon be on the way, just in time for October.

But to even come close to playing meaningful games during the last few weeks of the season, the Cardinals had to get creative. When they traded for struggling veterans Jon Lester and J.A. Happ at the deadline, front offices around the majors had to be unimpressed. The Cardinals were on the periphery of contention then, and neither seemed to be the type to emerge as a season-altering force.

When he was traded from the Minnesota Twins, Happ owned a 6.77 ERA. He has a 4.33 ERA since, and that includes a one-inning clunker in which he allowed seven runs. Lester was pitching to a 5.02 ERA with the Washington Nationals. He is pitching to a 2.59 ERA in four September starts.

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“I think that’s buying into the changes I need to make or needed to make,” Lester said after his start Monday against the Brewers. “You feel uncomfortable because it’s not what you’ve done. You just have to buy in and try to execute pitches.”

Lester credits Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina with helping him read hitters better and with helping him navigate lineups differently. He credits pitching coach Mike Maddux for helping him adjust his approach just when it appeared he might not have much left to give. Now 37, Lester has been a grizzled veteran at nearly every stop in his career. But in St. Louis, he found a battery mate and teammate in Molina who already had proved he could overcome the effects of age. And in Maddux, he found someone who could simplify what often seemed complicated.

“Instead of trying to make your pitches better, why don’t we try to spend time making better pitches?” Maddux said. “You get caught up in the movement charts and spin and all this. Well, a located pitch always works. It really doesn’t matter what the metrics are. That’s making better pitches.”

For Lester and Happ, making better pitches has mostly meant choosing better pitches — shaking up the mix. Lester has thrown more two-seam fastballs and fewer cutters since he joined St. Louis. Happ has thrown more two-seamers and fewer sliders. Both have thrown inside less than they did earlier this season. Both are throwing outside more.

“These two guys, their strong suits all the way through have been pitching inside. We still pitch inside,” Maddux said. “But instead of going 70-30, we might go 50-50 and customize to each hitter.”

The result has not been a transformation as much as an adaptation. With a defense such as the one the Cardinals have, Lester and Happ can follow Wainwright’s lead. While Wainwright’s famous curveball and well-placed two-seamers can rack up strikeouts when he needs them, much of the right-hander’s success is tied to his ability to get the kind of contact his defense can handle: Only four starters in the majors allow a higher percentage of contact than Wainwright, against whom hitters made contact on 80.8 percent of their swings entering Thursday.

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“I told [Harrison Bader] this the other day: There’s been a couple points in the season where I’ve had a hitter up with not the most power, maybe a lefty without the most power, and I get into a count where I can’t walk him, but I don’t want to extend my pitch count that inning anymore,” Wainwright said. “So I throw him a little sinker down and away and let him fly out to Harrison in center. Hit it as far as you want to center field — he’s going to catch it. Sometimes that’s what happens — he hits a flyball to center and you think, ‘Wow, that’s pretty great.’ But sometimes what happens is you make a better pitch because you have confidence.”

Only four teams have allowed more contact than the Cardinals. Only one pitching staff has generated fewer swings and misses. Only 10 pitching staffs will make the playoffs. As of this moment, the Cardinals — who didn’t begin the season hoping to break the mold but certainly ended up there — will be one of them.

“We’ve done a really good job of modifying our staff a little bit to create a little bit more of an advantage — to take advantage of our advantage, our defense,” Shildt said. “You prepare for the black and the white. Then the season starts, the games start, and the gray takes place. You adapt and adjust.”