Nine reasons the Dodgers should worry about the Cardinals in the wild-card game

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St. Louis Cardinals' Lars Nootbaar celebrates with teammates after defeating.
St. Louis' Lars Nootbaar celebrates with teammates after the Cardinals clinched a playoff spot by beating the Milwaukee Brewers on Sept. 28. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

The St. Louis Cardinals were 71-69 on Sept. 10, a whopping 15 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and three games out of the wild-card picture, before reeling off a franchise-record 17 consecutive wins and clinching the second wild-card spot with a 6-2 victory over the Brewers last Tuesday night.

The hottest team in baseball, one that has won 19 of 21 games entering Sunday, is not the opponent anyone wants to face in a playoff elimination game, but these are the Cards the Dodgers have been dealt.

The Dodgers will host St. Louis in Wednesday’s NL wild-card game, with the winner advancing to the best-of-five NL Division Series against the San Francisco Giants beginning next Friday and the loser going home for the winter.

“FanGraphs had us at like a negative 400% chance to make the playoffs,” Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright said after Tuesday night’s clincher, “and we just proved everyone wrong.”

Nine things to know about the Cardinals:

1. O'Neill is making a name for himself

St. Louis Cardinals' Tyler O'Neill doubles against the Milwaukee Brewers .
St. Louis Cardinals' Tyler O'Neill doubles against the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

Tyler O’Neill might be the best player you’ve never heard about. The 26-year-old left fielder is a gifted athlete with raw power and speed, but he has made more consistent and harder contact this season, batting .285 with a .912 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 34 homers and 80 RBIs through Saturday.

A former hockey player from Maple Ridge, Canada, and the son of Terry O’Neill — named Mr. Canada as the nation’s best bodybuilder in 1975 — O’Neill hit .173 with a .621 OPS and seven homers in 50 games in 2020. Though he strikes out too much (165 whiffs in 467 at-bats), his right-handed bat is lethal.

2. Wainwright thrives in situations like this

St. Louis Cardinals' Adam Wainwright pitches against the New York Mets.
Adam Wainwright (Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

Wainwright, the 40-year-old right-hander, is not overpowering — his fastball averages 89.1 mph and tops out at 92 mph — but he thrives on big-game pressure, and his array of 74-mph curveballs and 85-mph cut-fastballs could be a tough matchup for a launch-angle-happy team such as the Dodgers.

The 16-year veteran went 17-7 with a 3.05 ERA in 32 starts this season, striking out 174 and walking 50 in 206 1/3 innings, and gave up four runs and seven hits in 8 1/3 innings of his only start against the Dodgers this season, a 5-4 win in Busch Stadium on Sept. 8.

3. Their defense is top notch

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina points to teammates during a game against the Cincinnati Reds.
Yadier Molina (Aaron Doster / Associated Press)

The Cardinals are the best defensive team in baseball, with a major league-best 52 outs above average — a range-based metric of fielding skill that accounts for the number of plays made and the difficulty of them — and 41 runs prevented, according to Baseball Savant.

Catcher Yadier Molina (nine), third baseman Nolan Arenado (eight), first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (three) and O’Neill (one) have 21 Gold Glove Awards between them, and center fielder Harrison Bader, right fielder Dylan Carlson, shortstop Edmundo Sosa and second baseman Tommy Edman are other strong defenders.

4. They've got a bolstered bullpen

St. Louis Cardinals reliever T.J. McFarland pitches against the Kansas City Royals.
T.J. McFarland (Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

The early-July acquisitions of two relievers off the scrapheap — sidearm-throwing left-hander T.J. McFarland and hard-throwing right-hander Luis Garcia — bolstered the middle of a bullpen that ranks 12th in the major leagues with a 3.99 ERA, fourth with 50 saves and third with a .223 average against.

McFarland, twice released by the Washington Nationals this season, is 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA in 37 games and is often summoned when a double-play grounder is needed. Garcia, released by the Yankees on July 6, is 1-1 with a 3.24 ERA in 34 games. His sinking fastball averages 98.3 mph and touches 100 mph.

5. And a solidified rotation

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jon Lester peers from behind his glove.
Jon Lester (Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

Many Cardinals fans scoffed when the team acquired veteran left-handers Jon Lester and J.A. Happ at the trade deadline. Why would a team that was 9½ games back in the division and seven games out of the second wild-card spot on July 30 give up prospects and take on salary for two struggling, aging starters?

But they solidified the rotation and allowed St. Louis to send struggling starters Johan Oviedo and Jake Woodford to the minors. Lester is 4-1 with a 4.36 ERA in 12 starts after going 3-5 with a 5.02 ERA in 16 starts for the Nationals. Happ is 5-2 with a 4.00 ERA in 11 starts after going 5-6 with a 6.77 ERA in 19 starts for the Minnesota Twins.

6. They have one of the best relievers in baseball

St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Giovanny Gallegos raises his arms in celebration.
Giovanny Gallegos (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

Closer Giovanny Gallegos has quietly emerged as one of the best relievers in baseball, going 11-9 with a 2.76 ERA and 19 saves in 155 games over the last three seasons, with 209 strikeouts and 40 walks in 169 1/3 innings. He throws a 95-mph fastball and an 85.6-mph slider from the same arm slot, making it tough for hitters to recognize the pitches.

The durable Gallegos is 6-5 with a 3.02 ERA in 73 games this season, with 95 strikeouts and 20 walks in 80 1/3 innings. Since replacing the struggling Alex Reyes at closer in late August, he has converted 12 of 13 save opportunities.

7. And one of the hottest hitters

St. Louis Cardinals' Paul Goldschmidt watches his RBI single against the San Diego Padres.
Paul Goldschmidt (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

O’Neill and Arenado, who is batting .255 with an .808 OPS, 34 homers and 105 RBIs, have been the team’s most consistent hitters from start to finish, but Goldschmidt has been the hottest hitter the last two months.

The 34-year-old veteran was batting .268 with a .776 OPS, 18 homers and 63 RBIs in 110 games through Aug. 10. Since Aug. 11, Goldschmidt has hit .356 with a 1.129 OPS, 13 homers and 36 RBIs in 47 games to improve to .294 with an .881 OPS, 31 homers, 99 RBIs and 102 runs on the season.

8. Give Shildt some credit

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, middle, watches from the dugout.
Mike Shildt (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Manager Mike Shildt deserves credit for the strong finish. On a day off for Goldschmidt, Shildt moved O’Neill from cleanup to the third spot for a Sept. 7 game against the Dodgers. O’Neill had three hits and a walk in a 7-2 loss, and Shildt left him batting third between Goldschmidt and Arenado.

With added lineup protection, O’Neill hit .329 with a 1.097 OPS, nine homers and 23 RBIs in his next 21 games, and the Cardinals led the major leagues in runs (120) and the NL in homers (35) during that span.

9. Nootbaar is solid off the bench

St. Louis Cardinals' Lars Nootbaar celebrates after hitting a walk-off single to defeat the Detroit Tigers.
Lars Nootbaar (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

If there is a player primed to have a candy bar named after him, it’s Lars Nootbaar, a 24-year-old rookie outfielder who played at El Segundo High and USC and is the son of a Dutch father and Japanese mother.

Nootbaar provides a nice left-handed bat off the bench — he is nine for 25 with runners in scoring position this season — and plays a solid outfield, having robbed New York Mets slugger Pete Alonso of a three-run homer in a Sept. 15 win.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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