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The St. Louis Cardinals long, twisted road to a division title

After all of the stress, strain and questions, the St. Louis Cardinals -- with a little help from their "friends" in Cincinnati, got the job done and brought home the National League Central Division title.

It may not have been pretty at time, and we lost some popular players along the way when Allen Craig and Joe Kelly were traded, but it's tough to argue with results.

Here's a look at some surprises that popped up on the Cardinals' road to the 2014 Major League Baseball playoffs:

- The Cardinals traded 2011 World Series MVP David Freese to the Anaheim Angels in the off-season with expectations that he'd replace Jon Jay as the everyday centerfielder. Peter Bourjos struggled mightily with the bat, especially in the first half and never was able to establish himself as a regular player. That could have devolved into a huge negative in the clubhouse. Bull the hallmark of this season might have been the graceful and determined way Jay went about the situation. Jay didn't complain or demand a trade. He, instead, became Bourjos' biggest ally on the club. When Bourjos made a nice catch or got a big hit, it seemed Jay was always the one who was first to congratulate him. Still, Jay never lost his edge. He performed consistently and won his starting position back by letting his bat do the talking. In a season in which offense was down across Major League Baseball, Jay led St. Louis with a .303 batting average, the only player on the club to stay above the .300 mark.

- The injury to Michael Wacha was a huge setback to the Cardinals. It seemed to appear out of nowhere and I'm not sure, 3 1/2 months later, if he's 100 percent yet. Wacha has been uneven in his starts since coming back, struggling to find the feel of his signature pitch, the change-up. He said during the post-game show Sunday that he believes he's ready to start in the playoffs. I hope he's right. And I hope even more than he's healthy for good. The shoulder blade injury he suffered is rare. But in athletes who have suffered similar problems, a recurrence is probable.

- In the bullpen former closer Jason Motte never was able to regain his peak form after missing all of the 2013 season with a torn ligament in his elbow. The Cardinals took a chance on journeyman reliever Pat Neshek and it was a wise insurance policy. Neshek took over the eighth inning set up job Motte was tabbed to fill and did an amazing job with a 1.87 earned run average and 0.78 baserunners allowed per inning pitched. I don't know if the Cardinals could have made it as far as they have if Neshek wasn't a steadying force in the bullpen.

- If there was one thing I thought the Cardinals could count on this year it was the steady bat of Allen Craig in the clean-up spot. But, for one reason or another, Craig could never get into gear in 2014. He drove in runs at a near-record clip last year. But, only a few months later, he couldn't get around on the fastball and seemed to have completely lost his power. The struggles of Craig pulled the rug out from under the whole Cardinals offense, a problem the team could never really get over even after the popular Craig was traded with Joe Kelly to Boston. Matt Adams tried to fill in for Adams as cleanup hitter but seemed to wilt with the pressure when it became his everyday job. Adams hit .329 with 11 homers in the first half of the season -- and .232 with four homers in the second half. 

- The Cardinals, at the trade deadline struggling to stay out of third place, made a pair of controversial swaps. Besides the Craig and Kelly for John Lackey deal, the Birds traded outfield prospect James Ramsey for former Cleveland Indians ace Justin Masterson. In short, Masterson was terrible after arriving in St. Louis where he made one decent start in eight tries and compiled a 7.53 ERA before being exiled to the bullpen. Masterson made an appearance in the Cardinals' finale and looked more like he was advertised, allowing one hit and no runs over two innings to earn a win in a bullpen game after ace Adam Wainwright was scratched. I wonder if he would be willing to accept a one-year make-good deal after being such a bust this year largely due to a knee problem. But, even if he is, the Cardinals are likely to have no room in the rotation with Waineright, Wacha, Lackey, Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn penciled in and Marco Gonzales, Carlos Martinez and others waiting in the wings for a shot.

- You never know how kids are going to perform, but another story line from 2014 was the angst over Oscar Taveras' arrival, Kolten Wong's early struggles and demotion and the rapid rise of Randal Grichuk. Cardinals fans clamored for the promotion of Taveras all year, more persistently when the offense's struggles became obvious as a permanent thing as opposed to a passing trend. In 245 plate appearances, Taveras hit .239 with only three homers and 22 RBIs. Wong showed surprising power for a little guy, but he never hit much for average, either, batting .251 with 12 homers and 20 stolen bases. The low averages kept Wong and Taveras from helping the Cardinals fully implement a speed element in their game. Grichuk, who some saw as a throw-in in the Bourjos deal, was a surprise call up early in the season but never got the consistent playing time he needed to make his mark. After Taveras struggled in the wake of the Craig trade, the Cardinals summoned Grichuk back from Class AAA Memphis where he was one of the team's best offensive AND defensive players. Grichuk, hit .348 over the last month of the season with two homers and four doubles. He looks like a keeper and, if I was Taveras, I would be worried about the competition.

- Finally, the biggest plot twist in the Cardinals season occurred when team leader Yadier Molina was sidelined with torn ligaments in his throwing thumb. In retrospect, the Redbirds did a nice job of keeping afloat while they waited for Molina to return, adding controversial catcher AJ Pierzynski to fill the gap. But it became obvious what Molina means to this team that, upon Molina's return, the pitching staff as a whole improved markedly, the offense perked up a little bit and the Cardinals made a big push that ultimately ended in a division championship.