It’s another red October for the St. Louis Cardinals, who continue to offer proof that they never tire of participating in the postseason.
The Cardinals are in the playoffs for the fifth straight year and for the 12th time since 2000. Once again, they have what it takes to make a deep run.
However, things must fall into place for fourth-year manager Mike Matheny’s club. The Pittsburgh Pirates or the Chicago Cubs will provide resistance in the best-of-five NL Division Series, and the stakes only continue to rise should the Cardinals survive that test.
Here are five of the Cardinals’ top concerns heading into the playoffs:
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▪ 1. Is catcher Yadier Molina healthy enough to contribute?
The Cardinals announced Monday that Molina, who suffered a partially torn ligament in his left thumb Sept. 20 in Chicago, would be fitted with a splint to see whether he can absorb the pounding of 95-mph fastballs and swing the bat with no pain. Molina’s right hand and arm are intact, as is his uncanny ability to handle the pitching staff. For those reasons alone, it’s worth trying to get Molina, 33, on the postseason roster. But is it worth the risk of further injury? And if Molina experiences discomfort, will he became a liability? Is a healthy Tony Cruz a better option for the short term? The Cardinals will make those determinations by Friday.
▪ 2. Can John Lackey lead the rotation?
The grizzled Lackey, 36, will get the ball in Game 1 of the division series at 5:45 p.m. Friday and will be unfazed by the pressure. After all, he will be in his happy spot, Busch Stadium, where he was 9-4 with a 1.93 ERA in 17 regular-season starts. Lackey hasn’t allowed more than three runs in any of his home starts. The Cardinals will need him to pitch like an ace and have the other members of the rotation, minus the injured Carlos Martinez, fall into line. Jaime Garcia (10-6, 2.43 ERA) has had a terrific bounceback season, but he allowed four earned runs in three of his last seven starts. Michael Wacha (17-7, 3.38 ERA) was 2-3 with a 7.88 ERA in five starts in September, with 18 walks in 24 innings. Lance Lynn (12-11, 3.03 ERA) has been steady for most of the season, but has a 4.41 ERA in 23 playoff games.
▪ 3. How big of a lift could Adam Wainwright provide for the bullpen?
After suffering a torn left Achilles’ tendon April 25, Wainwright, 34, returned Sept. 30 and pitched in three games as a reliever. He hardly missed a step, throwing a pair of scoreless innings against Atlanta. Wainwright’s availability to help out in the late innings could be a huge bonus for the Cardinals, whose bullpen was compromised by injuries to Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle. Wainwright’s pitching savvy and unflappable nature enables him to thrive in any situation he faces, and he can be effective against left-handed and right-handed hitting. As an active leader, Wainwright provides an intangible advantage for the Cardinals.
▪ 4. How will Matheny use his outfielders?
The Cardinals have too many outfielders on their roster, and some will be idled for the division series. Left fielder Matt Holliday has returned from two right quad injuries, and his bat is needed for an offense that runs hot and cold. With Holliday available, rookie Stephen Piscotty probably will be used at first base and as a defensive replacement for Holliday. Rookie Randal Grichuk, whose right elbow has healed enough for him to throw, could take over in center, alongside right fielder Jason Heyward. The Cardinals will choose between rookie Tommy Pham and veterans Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos as their fifth outfielder. Pham seems to have the inside track, given that Jay (.210) and Bourjos (.200) have played poorly.
▪ 5. Who else could be on the bubble for a roster spot?
If Piscotty plays first base and Matt Adams and Brandon Moss are candidates to be the primary backup at the position, it’s hard to envision Mark Reynolds making the cut. Carlos Villanueva, who pitched in just 13 games in the second half, could be left out of the bullpen configuration since Wainwright, Jonathan Broxton, Seth Maness and Steve Cishek are available from the right side. Belisle, too, could be left off the roster. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Matheny keep Greg Garcia over Pete Kozma as the principal infield backup. Kozma, a postseason hero in 2012, batted just .152 this season in 76 games and 99 at-bats.