ST. LOUIS — No matter how strong the veteran core, the St. Louis Cardinals never could have won the NL Central without fresh faces.
The closer, shortstop and longtime staff ace got hurt in February. Jaime Garcia’s season ended in May and Allen Craig has missed most of September and has been ruled out through at least the NL division series because of a sprained foot. Chris Carpenter, Jason Motte and Rafael Furcal have been full-time bystanders.
Players plucked from the minors helped fill the voids as the Cardinals won the NL Central for the first time since 2009 and the 11th time in 18 seasons since Bill DeWitt Jr.’s group bought the franchise.
“Hopefully they don’t check IDs before we get to the playoffs,” closer-of-the-moment Trevor Rosenthal said with a laugh late Friday after finishing off the clincher with a 7-0 victory over the Chicago Cubs. “It’s crazy. Look around, and most of the guys have come up together through the organization. It’s a cool feeling.”
The Cardinals figured they’d get contributions from Shelby Miller, Rosenthal and Michael Wacha, a trio of 22-year-olds, and all three exceeded expectations. Miller leads major league rookies with 15 wins, Rosenthal seized the closer job when Edward Mujica faltered and Wacha was one out shy of a no-hitter in his last start. Joe Kelly, 24, was the strongest starter for about a month-and-a-half.
“We had some tough breaks and we lost some key guys, and we just kept pushing forward,” said Matt Carpenter, who leads the majors in hits, runs, multihit games and doubles. “It’s been a special year, and everybody believes we’re not done.”
Seth Maness, 24, has induced 15 double-play grounders in 61 1-3 innings as a middle reliever, and left-hander Kevin Siegrist, a 41st-round draft pick, began Saturday with an 0.47 ERA, allowing 16 hits in 38 2-3 innings. Lefties John Gast and Tyler Lyons both debuted with two strong wins.
“Think of the players we had to bring up,” DeWitt said. “You can go on and on about this team. To have good stuff, and then to come up and do it as a rookie are two different things.”
With two games to go the Cardinals had a major league-leading 36 wins by rookie pitchers. They had used 20 rookies in all, their most since 21 debutantes in 1970.
The Cardinals were a game out of first place entering September and lost their cleanup man and the majors’ best clutch hitter on Sept. 4 when Craig hobbled off with a left mid-foot sprain. Matt Adams stepped in with eight homers his first 21 games as the everyday first baseman.
Adam Wainwright got the final out in the 2006 World Series and was a key member of the 2011 title team. He relished standing in the center of the clubhouse getting drenched by teammates, but had just as much fun watching the kids celebrate.
“I’m just glad these young guys are getting a chance to pop the champagne, a lot of people never get that chance,” Wainwright said. “These are the memories that you look back on and say ‘You know what, that time we had in St. Louis winning a division in 2013, that was special.’”