The St. Louis Cardinals had plenty of doubters heading into 2012 after losing their best player and legendary manager from a team that won the World Series the previous fall.
Fast forward to another October, and St. Louis is on the verge of a return trip to the postseason.
With their magic number to clinch the NL's last playoff spot down to two, the Cardinals look to secure a postseason berth as they begin their final series Monday night at Busch Stadium against the Central champion Cincinnati Reds.
Mike Matheny replaced La Russa while Carlos Beltran, among others, made up for the loss of Pujols to bring the Cardinals (86-73) to the brink of returning to the postseason.
St. Louis beat East-leading Washington 10-4 on Sunday and remained two games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second wild card with three to play.
"We're one step closer, but there's still a long way to go,'' Matheny said. "We've got to keep playing and playing well. The guys came out pushing (Sunday) against a very good team.''
Beltran homered from both sides of the plate to snap out of a 1-for-14 slump, giving him a team-high 32 homers to go with 97 RBIs.
"As ballplayers, you're going to go through good stretches and bad stretches,'' Beltran said. "I try not to focus on that. I try to focus on the work that I do, come to the ballpark and prepare myself.''
Jaime Garcia went through a rough stretch of his own with one victory over his previous nine starts before beating Houston in his last two, and he'll take the mound again Monday.
Garcia (6-7, 3.99 ERA) beat the Astros 5-4 on Sept. 20 before allowing six hits in seven innings of Tuesday's 4-0 victory.
"That was one of his best outings of the season," Matheny said. "He was spot-on. It was fun to see.''
The left-hander entered this season 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA in seven starts versus the Reds, but he's 1-1 with a 4.08 ERA in three starts in 2012. He allowed four runs in six innings of an 8-2 loss Aug. 25 at Cincinnati.
The Reds (96-63) secured home-field advantage for the division series with a 4-3 come-from-behind win over Pittsburgh on Sunday, and are tied with Washington for the NL's best record, which would give them home-field throughout the playoffs.
If Cincinnati finishes with the top record and St. Louis beats Atlanta in the one-game wild-card round, the teams would meet in the NLDS.
"It was a big win for us because we want to get home-field advantage,'' said Zack Cozart, who replaced Brandon Phillips in the sixth inning Sunday after Phillips experienced tightness in his left leg. "It seems like we kind of lull through games a lot then turn it on at the end.''
Cincinnati has dropped Bronson Arroyo's last three starts, and hopes to give him more offensive help Monday.
The Reds have provided Arroyo (12-9, 3.70) two runs over his last 20 innings, though he didn't do himself any favors by allowing four in six innings of an 8-1 loss to Milwaukee on Wednesday.
The right-hander gave up three runs in eight innings to beat the Cardinals 6-3 on April 19, ending a seven-start winless streak against them in which he went 0-4 with a 5.95 ERA.
These teams have split the first 12 meetings this season, but the Reds have won five of the last seven.