Cards have plenty of heroes in Game 3

When you consider all that they’ve lost, it’s stunning that the St. Louis Cardinals are one victory away from heading to the NLCS for the second straight season and seventh time in 13 years.

Three potential Hall of Famers — manager Tony La Russa, pitching coach Dave Duncan and first baseman Albert Pujols — left the club after last year’s World Series title.

Three other stalwarts of the 2011 champions — right-hander Chris Carpenter, first baseman Lance Berkman and shortstop Rafael Furcal — contributed less than expected due to injuries.

Yet here are the Cardinals, the second wild-card qualifier in the NL, seemingly capable of becoming the first team to win back-to-back Series titles since the New York Yankees won three straight from 1998 to 2000.

Two unlikely heroes were the stars of Wednesday’s 8-0 victory over the Washington Nationals in Game 4 of the Division Series — and “unlikely” actually is not a strong enough word to describe them.

“Incredible” might be more like it.

Carpenter, who pitched 5 2/3 shutout innings, lost the top rib on his right side in July when he underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome — surgery that originally was described as season-ending.

Shortstop Pete Kozma, who hit a three-run homer, planned on heading home from Triple A until Furcal tore an elbow ligament on Aug. 30, and was in danger of losing his 40-man roster spot earlier this season.

Starting with the veteran pitcher and rookie shortstop, here are five reasons the Cardinals are in position to upset the Nationals on Thursday, when right-hander Kyle Lohse faces Nats lefty Ross Detwiler in Game 4 of the DS:

Carpenter: Always a competitor

His surgically removed rib is in a bathroom cabinet at his home, floating in a jar filled with solution. Doctors also removed two muscles from Carpenter’s neck during the operation, which took place on July 19.

Carpenter, 37, was expected to miss three to six months, but he is not one to follow doctors’ timetables. He resumed throwing after one month, with even his teammates doubting he would make it back this season.

“It was one of those where, as a friend and a teammate, you want to be supportive,” Lohse said. “But in the back of your mind, you’re like, ‘Are you serious?’ ”

Carpenter rarely is anything but.

He returned for three starts at the end of the regular season, and his stuff still is not fully back. Does it even matter?

General manager John Mozeliak said that Carpenter can “will a win.” And, in the words of one scout, Carpenter “did what he does best” against the Nats, commanding his off-speed pitches, pitching to hitters’ weaknesses.

The 2011 postseason was Carpenter’s signature — he won winner-take-all clinchers in both the Division Series and World Series. But Wednesday’s victory, his first since Game 7 of the WS, was special, too.

“I’ve learned a lot from him about intensity,” Lohse said. “I don’t do the stuff that he does before the games. He comes in, and he’s in game mode. I can’t do that. I’d be tired by the time the game starts. But he’s got that fire inside him.

“He won’t be denied.”

Kozma: A force out of nowhere

The day after Furcal got hurt, I called a Cardinals official to ask what the team would do at shortstop. The official said, in so many words, “We’re going to go with Kozma. He won’t hit much, but at least he’ll catch the ball.”

At the time, who could argue with that assessment?

Kozma, the Cardinals’ first-round pick and 18th overall selection in the 2007 draft, batted .232 at Triple A this season, right in line with his career .236 average in the minors.

So, of course, Kozma batted .333 with a .952 OPS in 26 games after joining the Cardinals on Aug. 31, and walloped a first-pitch fastball from Nats righty Edwin Jackson on Wednesday for a three-run homer that gave the team a 4-0 lead in the second inning.

Mozeliak estimated that there were five times this summer the Cardinals considered dropping Kozma from their 40-man roster, a move that might have led the team to cut ties with the shortstop. But the club kept resisting, Mozeliak said, maintaining an underlying belief that Kozma would develop into a quality major leaguer.

“Clearly now he’s a key part of the squad and he does have a future with us.”

Who needs Albert?

Most fans know that Pujols bounced back from an awful start to produce close to his usual numbers in his first season with the Angels. But here’s something that might surprise you: The Cardinals’ production at first base was nearly as good.

Four players — Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams and Berkman — each made 20 or more starts at first for St. Louis. And while the Angels ranked fifth in the majors with an .875 OPS at the position, the Cardinals were seventh at .832.

Craig, who missed most of the first two months with injuries, eventually took over the cleanup spot and led the NL with a .400 batting average with runners in scoring position.

Right fielder Carlos Beltran, the free agent whom the Cardinals signed to help replace Pujols’ production, hit 32 homers with an .842 OPS, and is 6-for-16 with two homers and a double in the postseason.

Beltran has one year left on his contract, Pujols nine more.

Who needs Colby Rasmus?

Rasmus, the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2005, was supposed to be the team’s center fielder of the future. Jon Jay, a second-round pick in ’06, has developed into a better player.

The Cardinals won the Series with Jay in center after trading Rasmus to the Blue Jays last season. Jay then batted .305 with a .773 OPS in the regular season despite missing more with a right shoulder sprain, and emerged as an above-average defender.

Before Wednesday’s game, I asked Chris Maloney, the Cardinals’ first-base coach and primary outfield instructor, which center fielder made the better catch in the Division Series, Jay or the Athletics’ Coco Crisp.

Both, of course, were spectacular, and at first Maloney said he couldn’t distinguish, calling the catches, “1 and 1A.” But after thinking about it, he approached me a few minutes later and said he preferred Jay’s grab.

I know what you’re thinking: Maloney is a Cardinals coach. Of course, he would pick his guy. But Maloney reasoned that Jay’s grab came on a “bolt” from the Nationals’ Danny Espinosa, while Prince Fielder’s shot to Crisp had greater hang time.

“Jay gets the best (jumps) of anyone in the game,” Maloney said. “No one has a better idea of where the ball is going than Jon Jay.”

It’s all in the system.

The Nationals receive justifiable credit for their scouting and player development, but are they any better at mining young talent than the Cardinals?

Fifteen players on the Cardinals’ Division Series roster are home-grown, compared with 10 for the Nationals. The list includes not just Kozma and Jay, but also Craig, an eighth- rounder in 2006; second baseman Daniel Descalso, a third- rounder in ’07; and right-hander Lance Lynn, a first-rounder and the 39th overall pick in ’08.

Oh, and those three hard-throwing rookie right-handers in the Cardinals’ bullpen? All three came in the 2009 draft. Shelby Miller was the first rounder and 19th overall pick, Joe Kelly a third- rounder, Trevor Rosenthal a 21st-rounder. Utility man Matt Carpenter, a 13th-rounder, was part of the same class.

Fans of the beleaguered Astros should take heart: Their GM, Jeff Luhnow, drafted most of the Cardinals’ young players when he was the St. Louis scouting director.

The Astros are moving to the American League next season, but they could do worse than to emulate their former NL Central rival.

The Cardinals are a pretty fair model.