Published January 13, 2015
When you ask people about who is the best team in baseball, you are going to get a wide range of answers.
But how many people will you have to ask before someone mentions the St. Louis Cardinals?
If you take a gander at the standings, it is Mike Matheny's Cardinals - and, yes, this is Matheny's team now - that owns the majors' best mark. But, best record or not, the Cardinals could very well be the best team from top-to- bottom in the league.
Now, of course, this is a Cardinals club two years removed from a World Series title and a team that has been to the postseason the last two and in three of the last four years. So it's not as if they are sneaking up on anyone like the Cleveland Indians or Colorado Rockies, but they do always seem to fly under the radar.
And why is that?
It is a team that lacks real star power now that Albert Pujols left and Matheny is nowhere near the lighting rod that Tony La Russa was on the bench.
Or maybe it's because they always seem to be dealing with some sort of adversity that they often get lost in the shuffle. The team lost Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery in 2011, but still went on to win a World Series title. They then had to watch La Russa retire after that run, while Pujols bolted as a free agent.
Yet the Cards didn't skip a beat, as the team managed to nab a wild card spot before eventually losing to San Francisco in the NLCS.
For whatever reason, there always seems to be some sort of trouble brewing in Cardinals land.
This year was no different. Not long after it was learned that former Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter would be lost for the season, closer Jason Motte started to experience some elbow discomfort that eventually led to season-ending surgery.
Regardless, the Cardinals keep chugging along.
And it's not real hard to figure out why. They pitch better than everyone else in the league. At 3.03 they own the best overall ERA in the league, but St. Louis' starters are throwing to a 2.29 ERA - almost a full run better than the next best team, the Washington Nationals.
Yes, Carpenter is gone, but Wainwright is back to being the guy who won 39 games from 2009-10 and was a top-three finisher in Cy Young voting those years. The 31-year-old righty is 5-2 with a 2.30 ERA and came within an eyelash of no-hitting the Colorado Rockies on Saturday.
In fact, Wainwright's two-hitter followed up an even better showing from phenom Shelby Miller, who tossed a one-hit shutout on Friday. The duo combined to hold the Rockies hitless in 49 at-bats, marking the longest drought since Sept. 25-27, 1981, when the Los Angeles Dodgers went 50 at-bats without a hit against Houston.
"When you follow Roger Clemens in the rotation like I have been, it makes you focus a little bit more," Wainwright said, referring to Miller. "These young guys are pushing me. And I appreciate it."
And now the Cards have to deal with a little more hardship, as righty Jake Westbrook, who is third in the NL with a 1.62 ERA, will now miss some time because of inflammation in his right elbow.
The Cards are expected to give lefty John Gast his first start in Westbrook's place. A former first-round pick, Gast started this year by opening the Triple-A season with 32 scoreless innings.
"I obviously started pretty well," Gast said. "It's been unbelievable so far. Just another year of getting better and executing more and more, a higher percentage of the pitches."
If there is one thing this Cardinals team lacks, it's a big bat in the middle of the order. Yadier Molina is up amongst the league leaders in average and Carlos Beltran fits the power bill for now, but he is 36 and is just keeping the seat warm for super-prospect Oscar Taveras.
Now if you are a fan of the Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs or any other team in the NL, you may want to stop reading because as good as the Cards are now, they are just going to get better once Taveras arrives.
And he is coming.
The Cards actually have a good problem with nowhere to play him. Would it be the worst thing in the world for Taveras to get a full season in at Triple-A? Probably not. But, he's been a monster for Memphis, hitting .317 while being tied for the team lead with 20 RBI.
Twelve of his 39 hits have been for extra bases.
Neophyte or not, Taveras' bat will only help a lineup that sits just a tad better than middle of the road when it comes to scoring runs.
Either way, though, we know this: No matter what gets thrown their way, the St. Louis Cardinals will somehow, someway come through it standing tall.
But maybe now everyone won't be so surprised.