By Rob Rains
On the morning of August 1, the Cardinals trailed the Brewers by three games in the NL Central, Jose Quintana was a Pirate and Jordan Montgomery was a Yankee. The return of Albert Pujols to St. Louis had produced more sentimentality than substance.
A lot has changed in two months.
The trade deadline acquisitions of the two starting pitchers and the resurgence of Pujols brought the Cardinals to Busch Stadium for Thursday’s workout in advance of starting the wild-card series Friday against the Phillies.
All of the Cardinals know that without any of that happening, they likely would have been at the ballpark to clean out their lockers and begin making off-season plans.
“Clearly we probably are not here without them,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. “Sometimes you make deals that work out, sometimes you don’t. These particular deals certainly helped us.”
Most of the the talk leading up to the trade deadline was that the Cardinals were one of the teams in the running to acquire Juan Soto from the Nationals. Even though the team needed starting pitching help, there wasn’t a public campaign like there was for Soto.
“At the end of the day were they the shiniest objects that everyone was talking about?” asked manager Oli Marmol. “Absolutely not. We won at the trade deadline. That’s a big reason why we are here today, able to sit around and look at a playoff run. What Montgomery and Q have done for this club is unbelievable.”
In their combined 23 starts, the Cardinals went 17-6.
Quintana’s performance over his two months as a Cardinal led to his selection as the starter for game one of the best-of-three series. In his 12 starts as a Cardinal, he did not allow more than two earned runs in a game. In his six starts since Sept. 6, Quintana has allowed a total of three earned runs over 33 1/3 innings.
“When he came here, there was something about the look in his eyes that he was on a mission.” Marmol said. “He was pitching for something meaningful. He took every start, every pitch he made, like it was his last pitch.
“It was good to sit him down and tell him he had earned this.”
What Quintana said he was pitching for was what he will get the chance to do on Friday – to pitch in October.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Quintana said. “It means a lot. I think we play baseball to be in October. Tomorrow is a start for our goal.”
Quintana, who will making his fourth career postseason start, with the other three coming for the Cubs in 2017, will be facing a Phillies team that finished fourth in the NL this season with 205 home runs. Quintana allowed a home run to the third batter he faced as a Cardinal, Patrick Wisdom, but has allowed none to the 244 batters he has faced since.
Dating back to his time with the Pirates, that home run to Wisdom on Aug. 4 is the only one Quintana has allowed to the last 285 batters he has faced, covering 68 1/3 innings.
Quintana has started once against the Phillies this season, in his last start for the Pirates before the trade to the Cardinals. He worked 5 2/3 scoreless innings in that game on July 29.
The Cardinals have not played the Phillies since July 10. The Phillies will start Zack Wheeler in game one. In two starts against the Cardinals this season, Wheeler has allowed only nine hits, all singles, in 14 scoreless innings.
Pujols did not play in either of those games, which came before his season reached a different level after the All-Star break. In 191 plate appearances from the start of the season until the end of July, Pujols hit seven homers.
From Aug. 1 until the end of the year, he homered 17 times in 160 plate appearances.
“Clearly the second half he’s been one of the best hitters on our team,” Mozeliak said. “At a time when it matters, incredibly impressive.
“You think about what he has really done since the All-Star break, to put up the offensive numbers that he’s done, it’s been amazing. It kind of reminds you of what greatness is, in other words. We all probably dream about it, we all wish we could achieve it, but few of us ever get there.
“Here’s a guy who for 11 years in St. Louis was probably one of the greatest hitters on earth. That’s rarified air. Then he goes away, then he comes back, and all of a sudden he is putting the team on his shoulders and carrying us, getting key hits, and doing it in a way that the city embraced. To watch him do what he’s doing is simply magical.”
In three weeks after acquiring Quintana and Montgomery, the Cardinals took control of the division, opening up a five-game lead over Milwaukee. They went 22-7 in August and 39-21 over the final two months of the year – a period that included Pujols’ run to 700 career home runs, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina breaking the major-league record for starts as a pitcher and catcher, and the emotional end of the final regular-seasons for Pujols and Molina.
Mozeliak is hoping for more special moments in October.
“As special as 2022 has been, we hope to add to that,” Mozeliak said. “We hope to increase what that legacy looks like for this team.”
NOTES: Miles Mikolas will start against Aaron Nola in game two on Saturday night. Marmol did not name a starter for game three, knowing it could depend on who he uses in relief in either of the first two games. He did say all five starters will be on the wild-card roster … The Cardinals do not have to officially set their roster until Friday morning, but did confirm that outfielder Tyler O’Neill, who has been out because of a hamstring injury, will not be on it … Ryan Helsley, who jammed a finger on Tuesday, threw in the bullpen and is expected to be on the roster … The team’s final roster is expected to be 12 pitchers and 14 position players, with Packy Naughton being added as a third lefthander in the bullpen with Steven Matz and Zack Thompson. It also is expected that rookie Nolan Gorman also will be on the roster.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports