A capsule look at Nationals-Cardinals series
Cardinals: There's life after Pujols and former manager Tony La Russa, after all. The wild-card Cardinals returned to the postseason thanks to an ensemble effort with several anchors to the lineup and rotation. Molina should be in the conversation for NL MVP after putting up a career year that justified the five-year, $75 million contract extension he signed in spring training. On track for a fifth straight Gold Glove, Molina is the undisputed standard bearer at his position with an arm that discourages baserunners from even attempting a steal. He had personal bests at the plate, too, finishing fourth in the league in hitting. The $20 million or so the Cardinals had been prepared to pay Pujols went to Beltran and injured SS Rafael Furcal, both All-Stars. ... The Cardinals won 12 of their last 16 to finish 88-74, matching their high water mark for the year. They ended up nine games back of first-place Cincinnati in the NL Central and were the last team to qualify for the postseason, but their wealth of October experience could be an equalizer. St. Louis took advantage of three Braves throwing errors — and a disputed infield-fly call — to win 6-3 at Atlanta in baseball's first winner-take-all wild-card playoff. Lohse allowed two runs over 5 2-3 effective innings and Motte got four outs for the save. Holliday homered and scored twice. ... Matheny is the fifth manager to take the Cardinals to the postseason in his first year with the club, and first since La Russa in 1996. ... Starting pitchers worked six or more innings in 85 games, the most for the franchise since the 1969 rotation that featured Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton also did it 85 times. ... Jay was just the Cardinals' third regular outfielder to have an error-free season, joining Orlando Palmeiro (2003) and Curt Flood (1966).
— Harper Here, There, Everywhere. The 19-year-old phenom led the majors in runs from Sept. 1 on, and his 22 homers were second-most for a teen in baseball history (Boston's Tony Conigliaro hit 24 in 1964). But Harper does so much more to make a difference, whether it's a big throw or tumbling grab or the occasional lost-in-the-sun fly in center field (remember, he was a catcher in college). Always aggressive on the bases, he'll steal home or tag up on a popup caught by the second baseman.
— RBI Machine. Craig was third on the team in RBIs, but there's a reason he's the cleanup man. In his first season as a starter, he was eight RBIs shy of 100 despite playing only 119 games due to injuries. He began the year in right field and was the regular first baseman most of the season after Berkman went down early with knee woes. Craig had two hits and an RBI in the wild-card game at Atlanta.
— Closing Argument. After saving 43 games in 2011, Storen missed the first 3½ months of this season because of elbow surgery in April. Clippard, an All-Star as a setup man last year, became the closer and thrived — until recently. He struggled down the stretch, and Storen appears to be Johnson's ninth-inning man once again.
— Mr. Inspiration. The 37-year-old Carpenter was hoping to be healthy for spring training 2013 when he underwent a procedure in July to relieve nerve pressure in his pitching shoulder that caused numbness to the entire right side of his body. The team's longtime ace made three starts in September, the last of which he equated to a third spring training start, but his experience could be a plus. He was 4-0 in the postseason last year, memorably outpitching Phillies ace Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the NLDS and winning Game 7 of the World Series.
— Pleased To Meet You. It will be interesting to see how all the young Nationals respond to their first taste of the limelight and high-intensity postseason. Harper, of course, and Zimmerman, Morse, Desmond, Espinosa and Suzuki will be making their playoff debuts, as will all but two pitchers. Zimmerman tends to be as even-keeled and pressure-free as they come, specializing in game-ending homers, including one in the very first game at Nationals Park in 2008.
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