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This team will find a way to be there at the end

I’m always reminded: These fellas gets graded on a different curve than everybody else.

As the St. Louis Cardinals embark on their 124th season, they face more than the challenges posed by their National League opponents. They face the expectations of an increasingly exacting fan base.

Fresh off four consecutive trips to the National League Championships (the last three under manager Mike Matheny), and regarded as one of the favorites to reach October baseball again this season, the Cardinals will be on everyone’s hit list this summer.

That list of critics can include their fans, oddly enough.

That fact hit home for me last October, a couple days after the Cardinals had lost to eventual World Series champion San Francisco in five games of the NLCS.

One fan was particularly livid when I encountered her at the St. Louis Bread Co. in Fairview Heights.

“That Matheny,” she fumed, “he gets one more chance with me.”

Really? One more chance? After getting his team to three pennant series and a World Series in his first three seasons as manager, Matheny has one foot on a banana peel on his way out of town?

Hardly, not for a first-time skipper with a won-loss record of 275-211with St. Louis, a winning percentage of .566 – better, mind you, than the career winning percentages of Hall of Fame managers Tony La Russa (.536), Joe Torre (.536), or Sparky Anderson (.545).

But such are the expectations for a team that hasn’t won the World Series in four seasons – horrors! – not since the head-spinning heroics of David Freese and Albert Pujols in La Russa’s last season as manager in 2011.

Three years and three frustrating playoff appearances later, the Cardinals begin the quest again with the season opener April 5 in Wrigley Field, against the darlings of baseball’s offseason, the much-ballyhooed but yet-to-prove-anything Chicago Cubs.

On display in road gray: The nucleus of a veteran Cardinals club (led by the likes of Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter and Matt Holliday), with a sprinkling of youngsters (Kolten Wong, Trevor Rosenthal and Matt Adams), and one very striking addition – right fielder Jason Heyward.

As Heyward goes, so may go the Cardinals lineup: Holliday’s power production is heading downhill in his seventh season with the Cardinals – his slugging percentage has dropped each of the last four years – while questions remain about Adams’ ability to hit left-handers. Other questions linger: Will Jhonny Peralta duplicate the best power season ever by a Cardinals shortstop? Will Wong be the prolific player he was in the second half of last season, or the tentative, sometimes uncertain rookie of the first half? Will the bench be better? Can this team, last in the NL in home runs last year, generate more power?

Heyward may well be the ignition switch to restart this offense, but we would have never even considered the question had Oscar Taveras not died in a car accident this winter. That tragedy led to the Shelby Miller-for-Heyward trade with Atlanta, and much will be expected from Heyward in the last year of a deal that will let him be a free agent next winter – unless he signs an extension with St. Louis.

In a very real way, the loss of Taveras led to the departure of Miller. And it’s not at all certain whether Heyward or a handful of young pitchers can make up for those absent players, especially if Heyward is a one-year rental.

Contract worries aside, will Heyward flourish hitting behind Carpenter and ahead of Holliday? Will Matheny at some point jettison Holliday for Heyward in the three-hole? Will Adams hang in against lefties, or will Mark Reynolds be the right-handed answer there? Will Yadier Molina’s 20-pound weight loss this winter help his health or harm his hitting stroke?

Of course, part of Matheny’s brain has to center on the pitching staff, which will be top notch if Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn and John Lackey can man the first four spots in the rotation all summer. But all four right-handers have health or age questions stalking them, and the starting staff will need to be bolstered by youngsters Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales, or veteran Jaime Garcia (again, with the health questions).

Reliever Jordan Walden, acquired in the Heyward trade, should buttress the late-inning work by the bullpen, which will profit or perish on the right arm of Rosenthal entering his second full season as closer. By all accounts, he doesn’t scare, but he is scary: Despite a fastball that regularly hits 96-99 mph, Rosenthal walked 42 batters in 70 1/3 innings last year, and allowed 108 baserunners in those innings – far too many for the kind of shutdown closer he could be.

Questions abound for the Cardinals, then, as they always do in a sport that exacts the longest regular season of any major sport (162 for-real contests following seven weeks in Florida, then another month in October if all goes well). And this season unfolds, mind you, for a Cardinals team that has played more postseason games the last four seasons – 57 to San Francisco’s 51 in second place – than any team in baseball.

Yes, plenty to fret about as 2015 unfolds. But to their credit, these Cardinal players have shown – to date – they always find a way. And Matheny and General Manager John Mozeliak have demonstrated – to date – they know how to get this club from the sunshine of April to the lengthening shadows of October.

Good thing, for Matheny’s sake. It can be slippery on that banana peel.

Joe Ostermeier is chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America and has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at 618-239-2512 or at jostermeier@bnd.com Follow him on Twitter:@JoeOstermeier.

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