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At ‘magical’ season’s end, Cardinals pursue one last trick: A 12th World Series title

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In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman discusses Paul Goldschmidt’s .981 OPS this season … but also his .689 OPS after Aug. 25. Plus, a happy birthday shoutout to Brian Sutter! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

As his team waited, some thumbs poised against cork and others still gripping and shaking the Champagne for maximum spritz, Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol stood recently in the middle of a clubhouse and chronicled a season highlighted by individual achievements.

During the team’s second-half surge to earn a celebration as National League Central champion, the box scores overflowed with signature numbers, the games soaked in milestones. Albert Pujols hit his 699th and 700th career home runs in back-to-back at-bats, and that came not too long after Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina set an all-time record with their 325th start together as a battery. Paul Goldschmidt led the NL with a .981 OPS. He and Nolan Arenado had matching 100-RBI seasons and strong statistical bids for what would be either infielder’s first MVP award. Marmol, the youngest manager at 36 to win a division title, had notable numbers of his own, specifically Year One in the role.

Before letting loose the bubbles and suds to commemorate a playoff berth, Marmol noted that not once did the swirl of individual feats cloud the team goal. Now that the postseason has arrived, all the history made is history, those numbers, no matter how big and gaudy, are replaced by the one that matters most.

Twelve.

A 12th World Series title.

“That’s a championship,” Marmol said, “and here we are.”

The Cardinals resume pursuit of their 12th World Series pennant Friday afternoon at Busch Stadium in the wild-card round of Major League Baseball’s new, expanded playoffs. The spoils of a division title without a top-two record is home-field advantage for all games in the best-of-three opening series.

What awaits the Cardinals is one of the most robust playoff fields in NL history — with three teams that won at least 101 games — and a first-round opponent that boasts two of the top right-handed starters in the league. The Cardinals have gone 11 years since their last World Series win, their fourth-longest span without a title since their first crown in 1926. To open this postseason they draw the team they upended on the way to the 2011 championship: The Philadelphia Phillies. Three members of that Cardinals’ team are active and together again for the last time — Pujols, Molina and Wainwright — and while they’ve spent the summer clearing personal milestones, they given motivation to an entire team.

“With Albert and Yadi saying it’s going to be their last year, we’d love to send them out the right way,” Goldschmidt said Thursday after the team’s workout at Busch. “So that’s definitely been some motivation. It’s been on our mind since spring training. It’s carried us this far. There’s a long way to go. It’s been on my mind. These guys are here. It’s their last year. We’re trying not to disappoint.”

The last time the Phillies were in the playoffs was the last out of a decisive Game 5 in the 2011 NL Division Series. Close friends and peerless competitors Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay exhausted their best — and forever changed their careers — in a game the Cardinals and Carpenter won, 1-0. The game ended with Pujols’ foot on first base for a groundout and Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard tumbling in pain along the first-base line. His attempt to outrun the grounder had ruptured his Achilles’ tendon.

The Cardinals advanced to seize the pennant against Milwaukee and the championship from Texas as the early peak for 15 consecutive winning seasons, while that Phillies’ era ended and they receded from contention.

No player on the current roster was part of the 2011 club.

“It literally became like a fork in the road — one went right and one went left,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. “It was such an epic game. Two incredible pitchers going head to head, our first two hitters scored the one run, and then it was shutdown city. For us, it became almost more of a springboard. In Philly’s case, it became a turning point for their franchise. I’m hopefully if we had been on the other side of that, it would not have been the same. But you never know.”

You kinda do.

The Cardinals returned to the World Series in 2013, but since have had a slow drift into the October shadows. They have not won an NLCS game since 2014, not advanced out of the first round of the playoffs since 2019. It wasn’t just the Phillies that came to a fork in the road in 2011. Pujols and the Cardinals did, too. He signed with the Angels after that championship. Apart the Cardinals and Pujols never had the same celebrations, never shared the parade routes that they did together. A reunion has reinvigorated Pujols and reminded the Cardinals about what striving for excellence requires.

“Anybody who really has a legacy like Albert just naturally raises the bar for others,” Mozeliak said. “As much as these individual things we were chasing, it was still about the team winning. I think, in the end, these guys helped put that together.”

Mozeliak called the season “magical.”

And two things the Cardinals conjured got them to the playoffs. There was the sleight of hand at the trade deadline when, for the first time in a decade — back to 2011 — the Cardinals aggressively added and reshaped their pitching staff. Jose Quintana, acquired at the deadline, will be their Game 1 starter after a superb September. There was the revival of Pujols after a lethargic first half. The three-time MVP came out of the All-Star break on a tear, pulling off old tricks and hitting 18 home runs, delivering 48 RBIs, and slugging .715 for one of the best second halves of his career, all at age 42.

“Albert was chasing (700), he had that on his mind for a fact, and he got it, and he put our whole team on his back in August to get there,” Wainwright said. “I think the good thing about anyone who was chasing anything on this team this year is the team has been the main focus. That has always been the main goal and the end goal for everybody. I think Albert would trade 700 and end on 699 to win another World Series.”

Would he trade start No. 325 with Molina for the same outcome?

“Absolutely,” he said. “I’d rather have both though.”

The Cardinals went 3-4 against the Phillies during the regular season, splitting a four-game series against them at Busch. In Philly, Arenado hit for the cycle in one game and was part of four consecutive home runs in the next. Zack Wheeler, the Phillies’ Game 1 starter, won two of the Phillies’ four games against the Cardinals, and he did not allow a run in 14 innings. The Cardinals did not get an extra-base hit against the right-hander. But Pujols, the Cardinals’ designated hitter this weekend, did not get an at-bat vs. Wheeler.

The Cardinals have shaped their pitching staff for the best-of-three series around containing the Phillies’ left-handed sluggers, the NL’s home run leader Kyle Schwarber and reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper. There is one scenario the Cardinals are considering where those batters see a different pitcher every at-bat, and an approach the Cardinals may use plucked straight out of the 2011 postseason. The bullpen may handle more innings than the starters.

There is one other familiar approach that Marmol referenced in his office this past week in Pittsburgh. He noted that in a short series a win in Game 1 is vital, but that starts by “setting the tone immediately, first inning, let alone first game.” Like, say, the last time the Cardinals faced the Phillies in the playoffs. In the first inning of that Game 5, Skip Schumaker, now the team’s bench coach and part of the 2022 reunion tour, delivered an RBI double to score Rafael Furcal for the game’s lone run. It wasn’t a number that glistened with history. It wasn’t an individual’s achievement. It took that entire team to turn it into one of the biggest numbers of all.

The milestones are over. The chase is on.

The team goal is singular — or put a fork in the season.

“To win,” Marmol said. “There is only one thing that matters starting (Friday), and that’s winning. That’s it.”

Ben Frederickson and Daniel Guerrero preview the best-of-three series, from slumping Paul Goldschmidt to the Phillies' shaky defense.

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