ST. LOUIS — The defending World Series champion Cardinals believe they could be a very dangerous team in the playoffs should they clinch the second wild card spot like it appears they will in the next few days.
And if their struggling offense comes to life like it did Friday night, they may become unstoppable.
The Cardinals awoke from a somewhat lengthy offensive drought Friday night, drubbing the Washington Nationals 12-2 in the series opener at Busch Stadium. The win dropped their magic number to clinch the second wild card spot to three with five games left to play.
“That was one of the best offensive production nights we’ve seen in a long time,” manager Mike Matheny said. “That was great to see.”
The home team greeted former teammate Edwin Jackson with five runs in the first inning and four more in the second, taking a 9-1 lead after just two innings. Jackson departed after getting just four outs, two of which came on a double play from opposing pitcher Adam Wainwright in the first inning.
The Cardinals scored just 25 runs on a recently completed six-game road trip to bottom dwellers Chicago and Houston and had scored more than five runs just twice in 23 games since Sept. 1. It took just one out to achieve that feat Friday night.
“We know the talent that we have in this clubhouse is incredible and if we get guys going at the right time and everything starts falling into place like it’s starting to, we’re as good as anybody in this league,” said infielder Matt Carpenter. “I know we know that and I think other teams recognize that. When we get rolling, we’re not somebody you would want to match up with.”
The overall offensive numbers look pretty impressive for the Cardinals, who still sit near the top of the league in nearly all offensive categories. But much of that production came in the first half of the season. The Cardinals have seen a decline since the All-Star break in most stats including runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
And a lot of the struggles of late can be traced to the individual slumps of several key players. Matt Holliday is hitting .212 in his last 28 games with 27 strikeouts and just 11 runs scored and 11 RBI. Jon Jay is hitting .208 in his last 17 games and has 16 strikeouts to just two walks during that span.
Carlos Beltran has 30 home runs, his most since 2007, but has just two since Aug. 10. He’s hitting just .218 in 72 games since July 1 and has only 10 home runs and 30 RBI in that stretch. And David Freese, who has missed the last four games with a sprained ankle, is hitting just .247 in his last 47 games since Aug. 1 and has 36 strikeouts and just five home runs.
But Jay, Holliday and Beltran were all key parts of the nine-run barrage in the game’s opening minutes. Jay singled and scored to start the five-run first inning and then doubled and scored to start the four-run second inning.
Holliday reached on a fielder’s choice and scored in the first inning and drove in a run with a hard groundout in the second inning. Beltran recorded an RBI with a bases-loaded walk in the first and walked again in the second.
“If our lineup with the guys we have in there get going the way we can, I think the way they’ve been swinging it lately is a great sign,” said Wainwright, who allowed just one run in six strong innings to continue a solid run of starting pitching. “Guys are seeing the ball good, driving balls into the gaps and hitting it over the fence. We’ve been getting that two-out hit the last few days and that’s where games are won.
“I think our team is coming together nicely. We’ve been playing good ball for the past few weeks. We’re going to be a very dangerous team if we get in there.”
With a good chunk of the Cardinals’ offense struggling at the same time, they’d be in even worse shape if not for catcher Yadier Molina and first baseman Allen Craig. Molina, an MVP candidate, is hitting .348 in his last 33 games with six home runs, 21 RBI and 17 runs scored. His two-run homer in the second inning made it 9-1.
Craig went 4-for-4 with a pair of RBI hits and missed out on a chance at a rare five-hit day when he was pinch-hit for late in the game. The first baseman is hitting .338 in 54 games since July 30 with seven home runs and 40 RBI.
“To me, Matt Holliday is going to get locked in here any day and I think we’re seeing Carlos Beltran take better at-bats,” Matheny said. “Obviously taking walks there is a huge sign, he’s slowing everything up a little bit. You need the middle to be productive, no question. Allen and Yadi have been staples there for a good portion of the season.
“I think it’s important for us to see that we have that ability to come out and do that and then raise our expectation level that, ‘Hey, let’s put something together here.’ We maximized the opportunities that came up tonight.”
The Cardinals have five players with at least 20 home runs for the first time in franchise history. They have five players with at least 75 RBI for just the second time since 1954. The talent and the potential are there.
And if the Cardinals catch fire and start hitting like they did Friday night, they might just have another magical October run in them again.
“We’ve got to go out there and put up a lot of runs every game,” said Craig. “Offense goes up and down. Hopefully we can get hot at the right time. That would really help us out.
“The starting pitching and bullpen have been really good lately. If we can pick it up as an offense, that will make us a very dangerous team.”
They looked mighty dangerous against the team with the best record in the National League Friday night.