By R.B. Fallstorm/The Associated Press
ST. LOUIS — One more win. After again hitting their stride in October, the St. Louis Cardinals got tantalizingly close to making it back to the World Series.
Instead, three straight losses to San Francisco led to an agonizing offseason of what-ifs, and has served as a driving force all spring for a team deemed good enough to contend without any major roster upgrades.
Adam Wainwright, now the unquestioned ace of the rotation, won’t be letting last fall’s failures go anytime soon. That the Giants swept the Tigers after climbing out of a 3-1 NL championship series hole against St. Louis made it even worse.
“You never know, but we didn’t give ourselves a chance, and that just really bothers me,” Wainwright said. “We had the team to do it, we had the lead to do it.”
Heading in, whatever manager Mike Matheny’s club got out of the postseason was a bonus. But once the Cardinals took advantage of the brand new second wild card, surviving a tense one-game playoff at Atlanta, forcing a Nationals meltdown and putting the Giants in a series of must-wins, Wainwright doesn’t sugarcoat what happened next.
The Cardinals were outscored 20-1 the last three games, becoming the 12th team to blow a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series. They batted just .190 with 27 strikeouts while going 1 for 21 with runners in scoring position. Chris Carpenter, Lance Lynn and Kyle Lohse allowed 14 runs in 9 2-3 innings.
“We sort of choked, I don’t think it’s wrong to say that,” Wainwright said. “I think it’s true. We disappointed ourselves, we disappointed our fans. We thought we had the team to win it all and that’s why this year we’re coming in with a little bit extra motivation.”
Wainwright already had plenty, winding up the spring schedule with no agreement yet on a multiyear extension. He was 14-13 with a 3.94 ERA last season following reconstructive elbow surgery that cost him all of 2011, and both he and the club anticipate a return to the 2009-10 form in which he totaled 39 wins and twice contended for the NL Cy Young award.
The lanky right-hander is one of the keys on a team that appears to have a thin margin for error and is minus several big names. Since finishing a distant nine games back of Cincinnati in the NL Central, they’ve lost Carpenter — their long-time ace — perhaps for good, All-Star shortstop Rafael Furcal to season-ending elbow reconstruction and 16-game winner Kyle Lohse to Milwaukee in free agency.
Setup man Mitchell Boggs opens the season as the closer with Jason Motte, sidelined late in camp by a forearm injury. And they’ve added no key pieces, with lefty reliever Randy Choate and right-handed bench bat Ty Wigginton the lone pickups.
Plus, 2011 World Series MVP David Freese is starting the season on the disabled list with a lower back strain.
“We didn’t really do much and I didn’t think we needed to,” said utilityman Matt Carpenter, who added second base to his resume after appearing at five positions last year. “We had a great group of guys that competed, we were one win away from a World Series and we’re looking to bounce back this year.
“If we do what were capable of doing, I think we’ll be happy with where we end up.”
Long term, the Cardinals appear to be in strong shape. The farm system features 20-year-old outfielder Oscar Taveras and second basemen Kolten Wong, both of whom appear close to contending for jobs, in addition to a flock of power arms.
The prognosis for this year is clouded by the fact a lot of those kids are getting plugged in now.
Shelby Miller beat out Joe Kelly as the young arms competed for the fifth rotation spot, and Trevor Rosenthal nabbed a bullpen job off a scintillating October in which he struck out 15 in just 8 2-3 innings.
Former first-round draft pick Pete Kozma, something of a disappointment in the minors, earned the shortstop job. He entered spring training as the third option behind Furcal, whose bid to rehab a torn elbow ligament without an operation failed, and veteran free agent pickup Ronny Cedeno, who was released.
Kozma, who batted .333 last September, figures to bat eighth in one of the National League’s most potent offenses.
Matt Holliday is a perennial .300 average-100 RBI man, Allen Craig nearly had 100 RBIs in just over two-thirds of a season and 37-year-old Carlos Beltran just missed that milestone after a second-half fade that reinforces the notion he’ll need plenty of rest.
Yadier Molina is the NL’s top defensive catcher and perhaps its best at the plate, too, after reaching career bests with 22 homers and 76 RBIs and a .315 average last year. Freese, the third baseman, is a 20-homer guy batting seventh.
“We’re all very excited about what this group can do,” second baseman Daniel Descalso said. “We’re definitely going to miss some of the faces that are gone and I think some guys are going to have to step up, but we saw some guys step up last year and I expect the same thing this year.”