ST. LOUIS — The debut of a first-year manager and the departure of one of the greatest players in franchise history were not enough to keep the defending World Series champions out of a playoff spot.
Despite losing 3-1 to the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday, the Cardinals clinched the National League’s second wild-card spot about two hours later when the Los Angeles Dodgers lost 4-3 to the San Francisco Giants.
Under the new playoff format, the Cardinals will play the Atlanta Braves in a one-game showdown Friday at Turner Field in Atlanta to determine who advances to the Division Series as the wild-card champion. The loser heads home.
“You just look back historically, and it’s hard after winning the World Series to get in the playoffs, and for this team to do it is quite something, I think,” said Cardinals chairman and principal owner Bill DeWitt Jr.
“A great accomplishment. Mike Matheny’s first year as manager, he did a great job. We went through a lot of injuries and hardship, but to be in the final grouping in the playoffs, it’s a big deal and we’re really excited about it.
“Every time this team got down and it looked like, ‘Gosh are we really going to get there?’ they would come back. It reminds me a little bit of last year’s team. In the end we were there. You get in the playoffs, and I know they will be highly motivated. We have a lot of our club that has been there before, and they know what it takes to win. I look forward to going to Atlanta.”
Matheny told reporters following the game that he told his players to go home and rest instead of staying to watch the conclusion of the Dodgers-Giants game like the team did the night before. Had the Dodgers won, the Cardinals would have been one game ahead of them entering Wednesday’s final game of the season.
But either the team didn’t understand the message or Matheny wasn’t being straight. Reporters waiting outside the Cardinals clubhouse following the Dodgers loss just after 12:35 a.m. could hear loud cheering coming from inside. The entire team had stayed to celebrate.
“They don’t listen well,” Matheny said. “I was hoping they’d go home and get locked in on the game tomorrow, but even the couple who went home came back as the game got close. I think they realized how special this is. We talked about this before. You can’t take this for granted. We were talking about it being subdued, and it was, but we were still proud, and they have every right to be.
“Everybody was here. It was done right. They enjoyed the moment, and after 161 games and going through a lot of ups and downs, it was perfect.”
The Cardinals overcame plenty of adversity all season long. It started last winter when three-time MVP and team icon Albert Pujols turned down their offer and signed with the L.A. Angels.
Ace Chris Carpenter, who was the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the World Series last fall, went down in spring training with a nerve issue in his shoulder and didn’t make his first start of the season until less than two weeks ago.
Lance Berkman, who tied the memorable Game 6 of the World Series with a two-out single in the bottom of the 10th inning, battled a knee injury all season and played in just 31 games before a second surgery forced him to shut it down in September.
And overseeing the group was Matheny, who hadn’t coached at any level of professional baseball since retiring as a player in 2006. But faced with replacing a legend in future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who had led the Cardinals to two World Series titles in the past six years before retiring after last season, Matheny guided the veteran group back into the postseason yet again.
“It’s a great feeling,” said general manager John Mozeliak. “It’s a wonderful accomplishment. I couldn’t be more proud of these guys and especially Mike Matheny for what he was able to do with his leadership here.
“It’s always about that opportunity. To be able to qualify, obviously it’s a one-game playoff, but we’re excited about the opportunity. We’ll see what happens Friday.”
Matheny made official to reporters what had been speculated for a while: Kyle Lohse will start Friday’s game in Atlanta. Adam Wainwright, who was scheduled to start the season finale Wednesday, will rest up for a possible Division Series appearance, and rookie Shelby Miller will start in his place.
Lohse went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA in the regular season and should be considered in the upcoming Cy Young Award talk. The right-hander could have easily had at least 20 wins if not for a couple blown leads by the bullpen and a lack of run support.
On a team featuring big game pitchers Wainwright and Carpenter, it will be Lohse taking the ball in the do-or-die game Friday. And his teammates can’t wait.
“We were the last one in, but we have an opportunity to do something special,” Carpenter said. “I know everybody in that clubhouse is excited about the situation that we’re in, excited about our ballclub, and I think that with the way we’ve been playing we have a good shot. We’ve been playing well, and that’s what you want to do going into the postseason. You want to be on a high and playing well. I’m looking forward to going in on Friday and winning.
“He deserves this game. He deserves to go out there and take it on, and I’ve become close to him. He’s able to take that pressure and handle that responsibility. I know he’s going to be looking forward to it. I’m excited about watching him go out and pitch.”
The Cardinals will look to become the first National League team since the Reds in 1975 and 1976 to win consecutive World Series titles. All they wanted was a chance. And they’ll get it beginning Friday.