The Cardinals celebrate after they clinch the NL Central title.
NL Central champions!
Following three consecutive second-place Central finishes, the Cards are back on top — though they were a wild card the past two postseasons, winning the 2011 World Series and losing a seven-game NLCS to the eventual world champion Giants last year. Why the return to first? Didn't St. Louis lose Albert Pujols and Tony LaRussa after the 2011 season? Mike Matheny's club can hit — especially with men on base with two outs — and pitch. Plus, it doesn't hurt the Cards are a division-best 44-30 vs. NL Central opponents through Friday. Here are five reasons the Cards won the NL Central. The clincher: Cards rout Cubs 7-0 Video: Cards drench reporter Video: Skipper praises club's dedication
Two potential MVPs
The Cardinals have two Most Valuable Player candidates in Yadier Molina (right) and Matt Carpenter. Everybody knows how good Molina is — with two World Series rings — but Carpenter is this year's big surprise for St. Louis. He leads the majors in runs (125), hits (198) and doubles (55) and ranks third in the NL in batting average (.321). Carpenter mostly plays second base, a position he only played five times before this season. In just his second full year in the majors, Carpenter is outshining sluggers like Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig and former World Series MVP David Freese. — Statistics through Sept. 26.
The farm system
The Cardinal Way has been working for this consistent juggernaut that keeps pumping out quality players year after year. Of the 12 offensive players with the most at-bats on the team this season, everyone but Holliday and Beltran came up through the system. As for pitchers, Lance Lynn (center) was called up in 2011, Shelby Miller (right) and Trevor Rosenthal (left) in 2012 and Michael Wacha this year — and all have played key roles in the division-title run. Miller and Lynn have been mainstays in the rotation all season long; Rosenthal has 29 holds this season; and Wacha had a no-hitter through 8 2/3 on Sept. 24 before yielding an infield single to Ryan Zimmerman. The way this farm system produces, there's a very good chance the Cards will back here in 2014. — Statistics through Sept. 26.
Get this — the Cardinals are hitting an unprecedented .300 this season with two outs and runners in scoring position. To put this into perspective, the major league average is .232. The next closest team is Detroit at .259. That's a ridiculous advantage over any opponent. So how are they doing it? Well, with runners in scoring position and two outs, Allen Craig (left) is hitting a phenomenal .448, but he will miss the first round of the playoffs because of mid-foot sprain. Matt Holliday (right) is at .426, Carlos Beltran at .375 and Matt Carpenter at .373. If the Cardinals have a runner or runners on second and/or third and there happens to be two outs, there's pretty good chance they are coming home. — Statistics through Sept. 26.
The unlikely stopper
The Cards lost closer Jason Motte to season-ending Tommy John surgery in early May before he threw a pitch this season. This opened the door for a young bullpen arm to take on the ninth-inning duties. The door was then quickly slammed on Mitchell Boggs after he blew two of his first four save chances, which led to a Triple-A demotion and ultimately a trade to Colorado. St. Louis badly needed somebody to step up, and in came Edward Mujica (pictured). A virtual unknown before the season, he had only saved six total games in his seven major league seasons prior to getting the call. Mujica was dominant saving 35 of 37 chances through August. He’s been a bit shaky of late blowing two of his last four, but without question, he was a major part of the Cardinals' success this year. — Statistics through Sept. 27.
'Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!'
In Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS, Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith (left) hit an improbable walk-off homer against Dodgers closer Tom Niedenfuer for a 3-2 series lead. Why improbable? The switch-hitting Smith had never homered from the left side of the plate in his career, which started in 1978 — that was 2,969 at-bats from the left side. But here he was hitting a left-handed blast, which led to broadcaster Jack Buck's famous call of "Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!" What does this have to do with the 2013 Cards? Well, the current shortstop is Pete Kozma (right) with his .216 batting average entering Friday. Kozma has homered this season, but just once — and it was in the second game of the year. So maybe, just maybe, St. Louis folks might 'go crazy' this October, too. By the way, St. Louis won Game 6 of that '85 NLCS to advance to the World Series, where they lost to the KC Royals in seven games.