'We treat every game like it's Game 7': Inside the week the Cardinals returned to MLB's elite

Mendoza attributes Cardinals' success to Flaherty (1:15)

Jessica Mendoza contends that the reason the St. Louis Cardinals have found success in the second half of the season is due to pitcher Jack Flaherty. (1:15)

It was a sweltering Monday afternoon in St. Louis -- mid-90s and Missouri humid, with a real-feel temperature hitting 106 degrees. It was only a few days before the beginning of autumn, when in baseball we turn our attention to the playoffs. In St. Louis, they apparently had not gotten the memo, either in terms of the weather or the playoffs. The Cardinals were in prime position, but in their clubhouse, there is never any yesterday, nor is there any acknowledgment of a tomorrow.

That leaves it to us to create a context no one associated with the team seems to want to address straight on. The Cardinals sat in first place on Sept. 16, but their lead over the hated Chicago Cubs was at two games. The hard-charging Milwaukee Brewers were only three back and had just left town on the heels of a 7-6 win courtesy of a ninth-inning grand slam by Ryan Braun. The Washington Nationals still figured heavily in the wild-card race. That's four teams for three slots, and one of them would end the season in an unhappy place.

The Cardinals weren't supposed to be a part of this mix. Not after a 44-44 first half. But they caught fire and put themselves in position to compete for their first division crown since 2015 -- an epoch on the St. Louis baseball timescale. Three straight seasons had come and gone without a playoff appearance, though the Redbirds hadn't exactly bottomed out.

"We've only played one game in which we were [already] eliminated," Cardinals chief executive John Mozeliak noted. "Last year, the last game of the year."

Following the Brewers into St. Louis were those Nationals, who had their trio of aces lined up: Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and St. Louis native and former Missouri Tiger Max Scherzer. Then, once the Cardinals navigated that minefield, they would head off for four games at Wrigley Field, where they had lost all six times they'd played this season. Sure, this St. Louis team had played its way into contention. But the week ahead could either cement its quest, or end it. The story of the Cardinals' season had not yet been written. At the outset of the week, no one knew what kind of story it ultimately would be.

"We want to play all comers," Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. "We enjoy the competition. It is all about how we compete."

Here's a spoiler: Shildt is really the protagonist in this story and he's a very unlikely one. First, he's unlikely in that he's a rare big league manager who didn't play the sport professionally. He doesn't look like a ballplayer, to be sure, but more like the before version of Captain America, though he did play college ball. He's also unlikely because he's soft-spoken, sincere, genuinely nice and the epitome of a company man. He began his career with the organization as a part-time coach in the mid-2000s and worked his way up the ladder little by little. He has a message on the wall of his office across from the Cardinals' clubhouse: "Stay Hungry & Have Faith." The "t" in faith is a cross. After he gives his postgame news conference in the Busch Stadium interview room, and the reporters trail behind him as he returns to his office, he always stops and holds the door open for the reporters until they've all passed through.

None of this means he was unlikely to succeed at his job. He's unlikely because he's just so normal, and if you were sketching a main character in a work of imagination, that's not how you'd draw him up.

But you can't escape Shildt's effect on what the Cardinals have done this year. He preaches a mantra that he probably picked up from a book on corporate leadership -- "normalized excellence" -- and ever since Opening Day in Milwaukee, all he ever does is preach about each day, about improving through good habits and emulating the processes of those who have demonstrated success. During spring training, he trotted big names from other sports like Dabo Swinney and Zach Johnson through camp.

It's not a sexy approach, but the results are self-evident. And not just the wins, of which there have been plenty since Shildt took over for Mike Matheny last season.

More than the victories is that when you spend a few days around the Cardinals, you get the same kind of responses from his players as you get from him -- even from the veterans like Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright and Paul Goldschmidt, not to mention the organizationally developed younger players who encountered Shildt during their rise to the majors. The sentiments might be cliched at best, or the most banal sort of corporatized catch-phrasing at worst. But you can't say those sentiments have proved to be hollow.

"Right now, we're going to play like we're dead even," Wainwright said during the week. "We have to go out and win every single game. That's where our mindset is going to be. That's the way it is right now and we're going to stay right there."

The week ahead would put Shildt's messaging to its ultimate test. St. Louis' playoff probabilities, per Baseball-Reference.com, stood at 91% to get in, 68% to win the division.

Monday, Sept. 16: For starters

Dakota Hudson has been a rookie sensation for the Cardinals in a very un-2019 sort of way. He wins games without racking up the strikeouts. His walk rate is a little high. He's a sinkerballer, the type that isn't in vogue, and relies on the defense behind him. In other words, he's not analytics-friendly, and when he squared off against Strasburg, he was going against a prototype of the current preferred starting pitcher.

That's one of the things that mark the 2019 Cardinals and how they win, so it made perfect sense that St. Louis took the opener 4-2 even though Hudson and his bullpen combined for exactly one strikeout. It was his 16th win of the season. Recent Cardinals playoff teams seem to always have a stud rookie starter and Hudson is the latest.

Hudson's 16 wins are the most by a rookie since Justin Verlander won 17 in 2006 and the most by a Redbirds rookie since Harvey Haddix won 20 in 1953. All of this talk about wins is awfully old school, of course, but that's the thing with Shildt's Cardinals: While they do not shun analytics, they also don't ignore the more traditional aspects of team building. Hudson's success is as much a product of his team's approach as it is his own effectiveness, which has been considerable.

When Shildt took over, fixing the defense was his top priority. Long a point of pride for the Cardinals, performance on that side waned periodically during Matheny's tenure.

"Mike Shildt has a very, very high baseball IQ," Mozeliak said. "He knew there were strategically things we had to do differently. When you think about last year's offseason, [defense] is what he and his group decided to focus on. Obviously, working on defense and having a strategy for that is important.

"Adding Paul Goldschmidt -- that also helped in a big way. All of a sudden, all three infielders could look at first, look at it a little differently, have the confidence to throw over there. And he's really shored it up with Shildty and our staff's strategy."

The Cardinals' defense hasn't just gotten better -- it's become elite. St. Louis is closing in on franchise records for fewest errors and best fielding percentage.

The defense isn't the only thing that has changed under Shildt. The Cardinals have returned to the top tier in base stealing as well, a part of the game that nearly died under Matheny, much to the chagrin of longtime St. Louis fans. With 112 steals -- and only 29 times caught -- the Cardinals lead the National League and already have their most thefts since 1999. In the series-opening win against the Nationals, St. Louis swiped four bags.

"There's no question that our ability to run the bases has an effect in and of itself," Shildt said. "You get to scoring position, you get to third, that part is good. And it never takes anything away from our hitters. It puts our hitters in better position, scoring position, the opportunity to drive in runs. But I think the pressure that it puts on, I think we have a very healthy reputation from our opponents for having to honor our running game. They have to be on point with every single thing they're doing."

Playoff probabilities after Monday: 92% to get in; 70% to win the Central.

Tuesday, Sept. 17: Setback

The Cardinals struggled against Corbin and his dangerous slurvy slider, continuing a pattern of struggling against "soft" pitches this season. Washington evened the series with a 6-2 win behind Corbin's strong outing (and a big game at the plate from Howie Kendrick, who has always abused the Cardinals' starter that night, Miles Mikolas).

If you lump together breaking pitches, changeups and other soft secondary offerings, St. Louis' .580 OPS is the worst in the majors. That, as much as anything, explains why the Cardinals' top-line offensive percentages this season are pedestrian.

"When you look at our club from a purely offensive standpoint, it's a bit of a head-scratcher why we are where we are," Mozeliak said. "But part of how you can define that is run prevention, which we're very good at. Taking the extra 90 feet, we're very good at -- which OPS doesn't capture all the time. Overall, that's been the DNA of this club."

Among those whose offensive numbers have fallen short of forecasts is first-year Cardinal Paul Goldschmidt who, even in a down season, has 32 homers and 77 walks. He's also had a big effect on the team defense, as noted before, and has been a positive on the bases and in the clubhouse. Goldschmidt embodies the urgency this year's Redbirds have dealt with since spring training. His acquisition was very much a win-now move, though the extension he signed during spring training means "now" will last for more than one season.

Goldschmidt is in an interesting spot. He'd spent his entire career with the Arizona Diamondbacks, a nouveau franchise of which he was arguably the face. The reception he received Monday night in his return there was evidence of that, then he went out and hit his 100th career homer at Chase Field.

But Goldschmidt is a Cardinal now and the list of franchise faces is a long one. Even at his own position -- first base -- he's following in the footsteps of legends such as Johnny Mize, Jim Bottomley, Albert Pujols, Mark McGwire, Keith Hernandez and even Stan Musial, who played regularly at the position some years. Every day when Goldschmidt walks into the Cardinals' clubhouse, there is a stenciled sign on the wall above his locker with Musial's words, "I love to play this game of baseball. I love putting on this uniform."

"I've been pretty fortunate to be part of two organizations that are different," Goldschmidt told ESPN.com earlier this season. "Both have really cool things about them. In Arizona, they won the World Series really quickly in 2001 as an expansion franchise. It's something really unique. Being in Arizona, one of the newer franchises in sports, you could be the first player in the organization to do something.

"Here, the tradition and the history of this organization is something that's talked about from the moment you step in the door. Here, when you're looking back at more than 100 years, you're like, 'Man, that's before my grandfather.'"

With that history comes expectation. The Cardinals have won 23 pennants, tied for the third most among all franchises (and just one behind the Dodgers) and 11 World Series, more than anyone except for the Yankees. The history buys loyalty, but it also carries the burden of expectation. It means fans get impatient after three non-playoff seasons, and when they feel like the team is not being aggressive enough in the transaction markets.

"As I always say, St. Louis is very demanding," Mozeliak said. "Because they expect winning. And we're blessed. We have an incredible fan base. They show up, they support us. We don't envision having a 95-loss season, because we're going to keep trying to solve this."

Playoff probabilities after Tuesday: 88% to get in; 66% to win the Central.

Wednesday, Sept. 18: The Cardinal Way

After the Cardinals beat Scherzer and the Nationals 5-1, there was some disagreement whether it was the "Tommy Edman Game" or the "Adam Wainwright Game" among the gathered media. It was of course both. Wainwright held Washington to one run in seven innings, continuing a career resurgence after, frankly, looking like toast by the end of 2018. He struck out only three but still outpitched Scherzer, who allowed five runs over 6⅔ innings and probably pitched to a couple of batters too many because Washington is short in high-leverage relief options.

Back in 2016, former Cubs catcher Miguel Montero remarked how the Cardinals always seem to have players you've never heard of, but you knew they would be good. He likened them to "robots" and he's right. The Cardinals have a way they want players to play and the ones who adapt to it end up in the majors, usually without a lot of accompanying fanfare. The latest in-house product to emerge from anonymity to provide huge production for a contending team is Edman. Edman, 24, was a gradual riser through the system and before the season was ranked as the Cardinals' No. 12 prospect by Baseball America. He has gone on to knock Matt Carpenter out of the every-day lineup.

"We never want to cap guys," Shildt said. "We got a good sense of what Tommy could do in spring training. To his credit, he carried it over into Memphis and just kept playing the game."

Play it he has. Edman has carried on the decade's St. Louis tradition of rookies providing veteran-level production.

"Our strength has always been our pipeline," Mozeliak said. "We draft well, we develop well. That's when we have the most success. I think the last couple of years, we've tried to backfill through free agency. I just don't feel like we've hit it perfectly for what we need to do. And, look, the competitors to the north [Cubs and Brewers] have gotten better. Cincinnati is on the upswing. Our division has gotten better."

Edman homered off Scherzer, stroked an RBI single and threw out a runner at home plate from right field for his first career outfield assist. He then moved to third base later in the game; and later in the week, after Kolten Wong injured his hamstring, he took over at second base.

"Smart player," Shildt said. "This is an adjustment league, and everybody is paying attention to you. If you don't understand that people are going to make adjustments, you're going to be in trouble."

Playoff probabilities after Wednesday: 94% to get in; 80% to win the Central.

Thursday, Sept. 19: Jack goes to Wrigley

The consensus among pundits prior to the trade deadline was that the Cardinals needed to snag a No. 1 starter, as if such a thing were easy to do. Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler and even Zack Greinke were all floated at various times in the rumor mill. The Cardinals were treading water around the .500 mark, but with the Brewers and Cubs also having tepid first halves, the division was still well within reach. Add an ace to an underachieving rotation and then perhaps it would all fall into place. That and the fact that St. Louis has been quiet at the deadline in recent seasons added to the considerable external pressure to get something done.

Then the end of July came and went: crickets.

"I understood the pressure of what people wanted to see happen," Mozeliak said. "It's not to say we didn't explore trying to find pitching. But the types of deals we were hearing were just not very attractive to us."

Nevertheless, the Cardinals actually did acquire an ace at midseason. His name is Jack Flaherty.

Flaherty's second-half ERA is the best in the history of the Cardinals during the live ball era, covering a full century. Second best: Bob Gibson's 1.19 mark in 1968, the year of the pitcher. Flaherty's ascension has indeed put the rest of the rotation into focus. Flaherty, Hudson, Wainwright, Mikolas and Michael Wacha have combined to post a 3.17 ERA since the break, tied with the Mets for the best rotation mark in the NL. Only the Indians (3.10) have done better across the majors.

"The one person who was going to get the most opportunity should we not do anything was Michael Wacha. And he's certainly has made the most of this second chance, if you will," Mozeliak said. "He's pitched very well. Overall, our rotation has just stepped up in a way that has just defined our second half."

The Cardinals' pitching in general has been outstanding since Shildt took over.

This was different, though. This was Wrigley Field, with the Cubs just three games back. St. Louis had dropped all six at the Friendly Confines. And it was Chicago, not St. Louis, that carried with it the recent pedigree of late- and postseason success. The stands would be rocking. It was a harsher glare than the younger Cardinals, including Flaherty, had experienced so far.

"It definitely was a tough atmosphere down there," Flaherty said afterward. "I've never been in that kind of situation before."

You wouldn't know it to watch him pitch. Pay attention: Jack Flaherty, St. Louis Cardinals right-handed pitcher, is an absolute ace, a bona fide No. 1 starter who matches up with anyone a Redbirds opponent wants to pit against him. You might not have noticed this because it's come about quite suddenly, but this sparkling turn of events could carry a number of ramifications when the calendar flips to October.

How do we know Flaherty is an ace? He keeps doing what aces do and he keeps on doing it even as the stakes climb higher with every passing day. The Cardinals took that crucial series opener on Thursday, beating the Cubs 5-4. Chicago generated the early buzz with Joe Maddon's last-second lineup shuffle that sent a few dozen sportswriters scrambling about 25 minutes before the first pitch. That move, which inserted Anthony Rizzo into the leadoff spot days before he was supposed to even be out of the walking boot he was wearing to nurse his sprained ankle, ratcheted up an already-raucous atmosphere at Wrigley. Then of course Rizzo homered, going deep off Flaherty in the third, just the fifth long ball the big righty has allowed in 13 starts since the All-Star break.

"They needed a little bit of a jolt there," Flaherty said. "You could see he wasn't moving too well there. He put a good swing on the ball, did what he could. I saw him come out and stretching. I knew they were kind of doing something. I was warming up out in the bullpen, up on the TV it said he was in the lineup. So I was like 'all right.' Went over him real quick. We've faced him before."

But if that move was supposed to be the kind of storybook narrative that would spring the Cubs to a crucial victory, Flaherty authored a very different kind of tale. One that he dictated from stem to stern, dispatching the Cubs with a dominance that almost smacked of inevitability. This, too, tells us that Flaherty has ascended to acedom.

"He's unbelievable," Edman said. "I can't imagine there's a better pitcher in baseball right now. He's just been so dominant the entire second half. You just know he's going to dominate every single time he goes out there."

All told, Flaherty went eight innings, allowing three hits, one Rizzo's homer, while striking out eight. He threw a season-high 118 pitches, his last one a 98 mph four-seamer to induce pinch hitter Victor Caratini to hit an easy roller to shortstop. Flaherty strode off the mound, knowing his work was done, and was greeted with a hug from future Hall of Fame catcher Molina.

"If you've seen Jack pitch, you've seen a version of this," Shildt said. "You're just seeing it more consistently now. You're seeing conviction with his fastball. You're seeing command with his fastball. And you're seeing the ability to hit with his slider and his curveball. He's in control of everything he's doing."

As for Flaherty, maybe it's just in his nature to be unfazed by such surroundings. Or maybe it's the company he has kept -- he was once on the same high school pitching staff as Max Fried of the Braves and Lucas Giolito of the White Sox. All three became first-round draft picks. Whatever it is, Flaherty seemed completely unimpressed with an outing that had everybody else mooning in admiration.

"Every one of our starters, we treat every game like it's Game 7," Flaherty said. "If we're able to do that, we're going to keep ourselves right where we need to be."

Alas, Flaherty did not get the win. Closer Carlos Martinez struggled and the Cubs rallied to tie the score with three in the ninth. This, too, did not rattle the Cardinals' stoic demeanor. Carpenter took Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel deep in the 10th, and St. Louis seized the series opener. It was a cathartic moment for a player who was in the running at one point for NL MVP last season, but has slumped so badly in 2019 that his every-day role has been usurped by Edman. He, too, trumpets Shildt's message.

"I'm just doing my best to stay focused on the present," Carpenter said. "How can I help our team each day in whatever role that is? Really not worried about the past our how it's played out to this point. Just focus on what I can today, in each moment."

You imagine a morning mantra: Every day, and in every way, I strive to make myself a better Cardinal.

Playoff probabilities after Thursday: 97% to get in; 87% to win the Central.

Friday, Sept. 20: What's old is always new

The Cardinals have a very different team than the one that captured the franchise's last NL pennant in 2013. But they have two bridges to their most recent glorious era, which will ultimately be remembered as the Pujols era. Long after Albert Pujols departed for the West Coast, Wainwright and Molina are still playing pitch and catch. They've done it more than almost any duo in baseball history.

Most games started by same battery

1. 324, Mickey Lolich-Bill Freehan (Tigers, 1963 to 1975)

2. 316, Warren Spahn-Del Crandall (Braves, 1949 to 1963)

3. 306, Red Faber-Ray Schalk (White Sox, 1914 to 1926)

4. 283, Don Drysdale-John Roseboro (Dodgers 1957 to 1967)

5. 282, Red Ruffing-Bill Dickey (Yankees 1930 to 1946)

6. 270, Steve Rogers-Gary Carter (Expos, 1975 to 1984)

7. (tie) 264, Bob Lemon-Jim Hegan (Indians, 1946 to 1957)

7. (tie) 264, Adam Wainwright-Yadier Molina (Cardinals, 2006 to 2019)

They moved into that second-place tie on Monday in Arizona. Wainwright is a free agent after the season, so there's no guarantee that they'll have a chance to move even further up the ladder. But not only have they both been stalwarts on a number of strong teams over the years -- they've both played for only one sub-.500 team -- they are both essential to the Cardinals' push to the postseason right here and now. They rank among the Cardinals immortals:

Career bWAR leaders

1. Stan Musial, 128.2
2. Rogers Hornsby, 91.4
3. Bob Gibson, 89.1
4. Albert Pujols, 86.6
5. Ozzie Smith, 65.9
6. Ken Boyer, 58.1
7. Ted Simmons, 45.0
8. Curt Flood, 42.3
9. Dizzy Dean, 41.9
10. Lou Brock, 41.8
11. Adam Wainwright, 40.6
12. Yadier Molina, 39.9

Molina was the one who came up big on Friday, driving in both runs with a single in a 2-1 win against a Cubs team growing ever more anxious. Molina had three hits in total. At age 36, he has surpassed 100 starts behind the dish for St. Louis for a 15th straight season.

"Yadi, that's what he does," Shildt said. "He loves competition. I don't think [the situation] matters. I've witnessed him in spring training, I've witnessed him in the cage, whether it's just a little fun hitting competition among the guys. He's going to come out on top. He loves competition and enjoys playing in big moments."

The Cardinals' top-line rankings show how the club has gotten the most out of its chances under Shildt. Since he took over, St. Louis ranks 19th in average, with a .246 mark in 2019 that could be the team's worst since 1918. The Cardinals are 15th in on-base percentage, 21st in slugging and 20th in homers. But they are 11th in runs scored.

Some of that is their success on the basepaths. But a lot of it is situational. The Cardinals rank fifth in high-leverage WOBA (weighted on-base percentage) this season. They are 11.7% better in those spots than overall, a number exceeded in the majors by only the Miami Marlins, as unlikely as that seems.

"It's huge," Shildt said. "I don't know if it's a mantra, but we've talked about it a fair amount. We just want to get better as the game goes. We want to stay and gather information and get better as it goes. Every game has its own story, and we want to write our own story. It says a lot about how the guys focus, concentrate and stay present."

Of course, analytical types will say that this is unsustainable. But what if just maybe this is also an outgrowth of normalized excellence? Yeah, Shildt has us talking that way, too.

"A lot people have different thoughts about it," Shildt said. "Some analytical people say, and I understand, it's a small sample size. It's relative to opportunity. I can tell you this: One thing that I appreciate about our guys, our guys want that at-bat. And our guys look to slow it down."

Playoff probabilities after Friday: 99% to get in; 92% to win the Central.

Saturday, Sept. 21: A classic

Saturday's game was the longest in Wrigley Field history, and it was amazing. Every theme of the Cardinals' season was on display. Come-from-behind stubbornness, with back-to-back homers on the first two pitches Kimbrel threw, one by Molina, the other by DeJong. Sparkling defense. Clutch relief after Hudson was pulled early for a pinch hitter. And though the win, combined with results elsewhere, put the Cardinals in position to clinch a playoff berth, the postgame comments were almost belligerent in refusing to consider the larger context.

"We are trying to win it one inning at a time, one pitch at a time," DeJong said. "Slowing it way down. That's all we can do really. It's nice to think about the celebration and getting in. But we're not there yet. In due time. For the time being, we're just here, nowhere else to be, just enjoying each other's company and playing ball."

Although Shildt was hesitant to discuss the possible ramifications of the next day's game, he didn't need to be prodded when it came to praising his team and expressing his fondness for the whole darned bunch. He rarely does need to be prodded on that topic.

"As much as this group invests every day," Shildt said. "And you invest in something bigger than you, that means you care. And when you care, that means you fight. And that's what this team does. It cares and fights. Cares for each other, cares for us to compete and win baseball games. I'm proud of this group, but I'm not surprised. That's the DNA of this team."

There were a lot of St. Louis fans in Chicago over the weekend and they were loud enough to be heard, especially as the series progressed and the climatic moments piled up in the Cardinals' favor. Attendance numbers have remained high in St. Louis, as you'd expect in that market, but the unofficial no-show count has also remained considerable as the fans grudgingly buy into a team that came together all of a sudden. The enthusiasm of Redbirds fans in and around Wrigley over the weekend might be the best evidence yet of a fan base ready to really rev things up in October. And under Shildt, it's not just that the Cardinals are winning -- it's how they are winning, with defense, baserunning, starting pitching and timely hitting. It's a style that plays on the banks of the Mississippi, as it always has.

"If you think about the identity of this organization back in the '80s," Mozeliak said, "it was referred to as Whiteyball. You hear that when you're in the grocery store, or out in public. I do think there's a generation that has great appreciation for how this team plays.

"I mean, baseball is changing. Hitters are making tradeoffs -- home runs for strikeouts. A lot people don't find the game as enjoyable as it was two or three decades ago. I'm not one of those who subscribes to 'baseball was better in the '80s versus today' because I think today is still a very exciting product. But I do think the Cardinals do take some pride in knowing that we haven't sold out everything just to look like modern baseball. I think Shildty and his staff deserve a lot of credit for putting an entertaining product out there."

Playoff probabilities after Saturday: more than 99% to get in; 95% to win the Central.

Sunday, Sept. 22: Celebrate good times ... sort of!

The last game at Wrigley was a somber one for the locals in Chicago because it had become apparent to all what it almost certainly meant. Barring a nearly unprecedented sequence of events, the Cubs won't play there again in 2019. It was a 3-2 Cardinals win, another late St. Louis rally, another one-run victory. Four of them in four days. And with that, the Cardinals swept a four-game set at Wrigley for the first time since May 1921, a series that featured 10 Rogers Hornsby hits in what was then called Cubs Park. In other words, it hadn't happened in a very long time.

You might think that the Cardinals would delight as much in squashing the hopes of their rival as they did in their own accomplishment. But that, too, is outside Shildt's message.

"We don't care about anyone else," Molina had said on Friday, on the weekend he became the active hits leader among visiting players at Wrigley (219). "It's just us. We came over here to play one game at a time. If we don't win, we don't care who we're facing."

The win indeed clinched St. Louis' first postseason spot since 2015 -- the long red nightmare is over! This is a team with its sights set higher, though. There was only a mild celebration, as the media was held out of the clubhouse longer than usual. There were some glasses of champagne here and there, the remnants of a team toast. But there was no spewing beer or bubbly, no one clad in goggles or rain ponchos. Just guys showering, handling their media stuff, running off to catch the bus for the airport and a flight to Phoenix. Some wore T-shirts that said "2019 Postseason. Let's get wild."

"Just a little celebration, just getting back to the playoffs," Edman said. "Hopefully the real celebration comes the next few days when we clinch the division."

That will happen soon enough for a team that had weathered its toughest prolonged test to the tune of a 6-1 week. During the course of the seven days, if the media had not kept asking about the bigger picture, in the clubhouse you never would have known what the team had accomplished. Was this, too, part of the central message that Shildt got a team mixed with veterans and young players alike to buy into way back in February?

"Normalized excellence," Shildt said. "It's about getting better every day. We want to appreciate the successes we have, but ultimately, when we have success, we want more. It's a hungry group. We want them to stay hungry and keep moving forward. That's our plan."

Argh! It's all so corporate! But it's also so effective, when you see results in the standings that simply cannot be refuted. The same approach the team carried into each day in Jupiter, Florida, in the spring was the same one it used to sweep the Cubs in the final days of summer. It was an approach that meant no lineup of opposing aces, and no hostile opposing venue, was going to get in the way.

"It's huge," Edman said. "We know that we're capable of beating any pitcher at this point. I think it's great to have faced these teams late in the season. Kind of gets us ready for the playoffs."

All along, the week wasn't so much a test as it was a steppingstone. The Cardinals might have known it all along, if only they were willing to look to tomorrow. Of course, if they had, October baseball might not be returning to a city where it has more often than not been a fixture.

Playoff probabilities after Sunday: playoff berth clinched; 96% to win the Central.