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‘We need to be a freight train’: Driven by wild-card loss and fueled by record win streak, Cardinals aim to reclaim division crown

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Cardinals workout at Busch before opening day

St. Louis Cardinal infielder Albert Pujols leaves the batting cage on Wednesday, April 6, 2022, as fellow infielder Nolan Arenado gets set to bat during workouts at Busch Stadium before the team's opening day game against the Pirates on Thursday. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

Oliver Marmol, a few weeks away from becoming the Cardinals’ 51st manager in club history, stayed late that October night in the visitors’ dugout as Dodger Stadium shook around him.

He did not duck down that cinder block of a hallway toward a bag that needed to be packed, because before he could start the offseason he wanted to feel the end of the postseason. The Dodgers had ousted the Cardinals from the playoffs on the final pitch a Cardinal would throw in 2021. It landed somewhere in the bleachers, sending Los Angeles onward with a walk-off victory and most of the Cardinals inward to the clubhouse.

Not Marmol, the team’s bench coach in that moment.

He stayed to marinate.

LA’s celebration cascaded around him, like lemon juice pooling on a papercut.

“I want it to hurt,” Marmol explained recently. “I don’t know why I do it to myself, but I will sit there and watch the entire celebration. I wanted that one to be really fresh in my head. I want it to be vivid. The sound of it. How it looks. The smell. All of it. I want it to all sink in. I want that to linger a little bit, and I want it to drive our thought process. Did we miss anything? Is there anything we can do better? When you have the ability to go further, you want that drive to take another shot at it.”

The route back begins Thursday afternoon at Busch Stadium as the Cardinals open their 131st season in the National League and Marmol’s first as manager. Due to the 99-day lockout that forced a delayed start to the full season, the Cardinals will have a full house at home for Major League Baseball’s opening day for the first time since 2017 and only the second time since 2009. What’s new, is old. The youngest manager in the majors, at 35, Marmol will write three players 39 or older into the lineup. Adam Wainwright will make his seventh home-opener start. Yadier Molina will make his 18th consecutive opening day start. Albert Pujols will make his 22nd consecutive opening day start — and first for the Cardinals since 2011. Both he and Molina have said it will also be their last.

What’s old, is needed.

Pujols, a three-time MVP, returns to his first club and finds its trophy collection right where he left it — with 12 World Series championships flying above the scoreboard at Busch III. The Cardinals have not won a title since 2011 or an NL pennant since 2013. They’ve slipped from the national conscious as a National League favorite.

“We watched Atlanta win the World Series after … they had a run kind of like ours,” shortstop Paul DeJong said. “It just showed us that we can be that team. We have all the pieces. For us, the biggest motivation is we have all these things converging on us right now. New manager, Oli. We’ve got Albert back, Yadi, and Waino’s potential last year. Unless they pull a Tom Brady. All of that is really important for our city and for our team and for now than more than ever it really feels like we have to win. San Diego, Philly, the Mets, the Dodgers — they’re all right there.

“We need to have a great start in order to propel our whole season.”

The schedule invites a sprint up the standings. Beginning with a four-game visit from the 101-loss Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cardinals open the season with six of their first eight series against teams that had a losing record in 2021. One of the two series is against Cincinnati, which has divested so much of its talent and payroll to begin a flip-this-house rebuild. Twenty-one of the Cardinals’ first 25 games are against Cincinnati or teams that had a losing record. The four are in Milwaukee, against the reigning division champs.

The Cardinals do not have back-to-back series against teams with winning records in 2021 until the fourth week of May.

“Every game matters,” first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said. “I know opening day (stands out), but it matters the same as the one in the future. So you’ve got to play them all as hard as you can. Last year was the first year in what seems like a long time that it didn’t come down to the last game, and it took a once-in-a-100-year winning streak to make that happen.”

The Cardinals’ 17-game winning streak in September — the longest in club history and longest in the NL that late in the season for several generations — featured some of the team’s finest play in years. Wainwright said during Wednesday’s workout at Busch that the team is “still feeding off that.” This past week, as the team finished its condensed spring training in Jupiter, Fla., third baseman Nolan Arenado reflected on the record-setting run that also clinched a playoff berth and said the results will be difficult to duplicate but “how we played isn’t. We played the game the right way and we showed we have the right guys here, that’s for sure.”

The winning streak and the walk-off wild-card loss to the Dodgers in 2021 are the twin engines of motivation for the Cardinals entering 2022.

One showed them who they could be.

The other reminded them who they weren’t, yet.

“On the heels of losing such a heartbreaker last year, I don’t think there’s a guy on this team that didn’t go into the offseason thinking we’re out for everything, we want payback, we want revenge,” starter Miles Mikolas said. “Not necessarily against the Dodgers. We want to go out there and stomp people because we don’t want to end up in a playoff game trying to squeeze in. We need to win the division. We need to be healthy, to be there all year, and be a juggernaut. We need to be the freight train.”

Said Wainwright: “We’re going to have to beat those kinds of teams to prove that we are actually a World Series-bound, World Series-winning contending team.”

For the Cardinals, that must start where the season does so rarely — at home.

The Cardinals’ 90-72 record was split evenly home and away, Musial-style, with 45 wins each. But 11 of the record 17 consecutive came on the road (a winning streak that is still active). At home, the Cardinals had to rely on their elite defense and the Wainwright-powered pitching staff. Only the Mets scored fewer runs than the Cardinals at home, 303 to 307. The Cardinals had the sixth-lowest slugging percentage at home (.385) and only Miami had a lower home OPS in the NL than the Cardinals’ .696. In 42 of their 81 home games, the Cardinals scored three or fewer runs. The Cardinals’ defense rarely made an error and the team had no margin for error.

There are more avenues to the postseason this year. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement, forged in the first week of March to avoid a work stoppage that eroded the regular season, expands the playoff format to 12 teams, six in each league. There is no longer the one-game playoff like the Cardinals lost to LA, like the one Marmol lingered over. That is a thing of the past, which the Cardinals are selling this season but must show they are not relying on being the only thing memorable about this season.

One last race to finish first — with everyone watching.

“I think a big part of this year to us is to prove that we’re not just out here for nostalgia-type purposes,” Wainwright said. “We really want to win. I think we really can win. That’s the only reason we’re here. If we’re not expecting to win, nobody should pay us to be here, and nobody should show up to watch us play. They deserve to have players who expect to win.”

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