They're the St. Louis Cardinals, as big a name as we have in sports. They are a team that matters as much in their part of the baseball world, once the only part west of the Mississippi, as any team does anywhere, to a fan base measured in the long-ago by the reach of the great radio station called KMOX. Now they are in play again in the National League Central because of the way they've played the past couple of weeks.
The Cardinals' season looked lost at 53-56. Then they somehow found it with an eight-game winning streak. Even after a loss at Fenway Park on Tuesday and Wednesday nights -- where the last good memories the Cards have are from 50 years ago -- they are just 2 1/2 games behind the Cubs, in one of two division races worth looking at the rest of the way. We have the Red Sox and the Yankees in the American League East. We have the Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers and Pirates in the NL Central. Who wouldn't sign up for a last chapter of the regular season like that, with all of those teams, in all of those cities?
"Our division is going to be fun to watch," John Mozeliak, the Cardinals' president of baseball operations, said on Tuesday. "And that's good for baseball."
It's always good for baseball when Mozeliak's team is good. There were times this season when the Cardinals, who will play the Pirates on Sunday night in the MLB Little League Classic in Williamsport, Pa., at the BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field, were playing more than somewhat like a Little League team. But while they did, nobody ran away with anything in the NL Central. The Cubs had their own problems, the Brewers have faded and the Pirates still haven't made a big move. So here the Cards are, with a chance to have a big September. You know the Cardinals, and their amazing fans, would have signed up for that when there were real questions whether or not they were going to be buyers or sellers at the Trade Deadline.
They may not show the kind of closing speed they have in the past. Even if they do, it might not matter the way the Dodgers have dominated the season so far. But the Cardinals have given themselves a shot. It matters because they do.
"Maybe in a normal year, we'd be 10 games out," Mozeliak said. "But we're not in a normal year. We've started playing better, with more bounce and energy and purpose. And nobody's walked away from us."
Mozeliak was in Boston, where there really aren't many good memories for him from the time he became the scouting director in St. Louis in the late 1990s. He saw the Red Sox sweep the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series. He saw the '13 Series between those two teams go six games, a Fall Classic that changed with one swing of the bat: Jonny Gomes' three-run home run in Game 4. He saw the Cards get pounded for 10 runs on Tuesday night, then blow a two-run lead in the ninth on Wednesday night. But Mozeliak is enough of a baseball man and a baseball fan to know how important baseball is in Boston, one of the capitals of the game. It could never be more important than it is in St. Louis.
"Every speech I give, and when I reference Boston or New York or Chicago or L.A., I always remind my audience that St. Louis doesn't just expect to win, they demand to win," Mozeliak said. "And we all know what a tough environment that can be when we aren't going well. But the high expectations are what make it fun. I'd much rather work in an environment like that."
Then Mozeliak was talking about the amount of roster turnover the Cardinals have had this season. He talked about how crucial the leadership of Yadier Molina (who was drafted along with Albert Pujols when Mozeliak was still in the scouting department) and Adam Wainwright and Matt Carpenter has been. Mozeliak talked about outfielder Tommy Pham, who didn't make the Opening Day roster but is now hitting .310, and his fancy new shortstop Paul DeJong (.300) and the play of Kolten Wong at second, who is hitting .310. He talked about the way Michael Wacha has pitched in a season when no one knew quite what to expect from him. And he talked about Trevor Rosenthal, who had struck out 76 in 47 2/3 innings before Wednesday's poor outing. And about the clubhouse presence of Dexter Fowler.
Mozeliak's team was still just three games over .500 going into Wednesday night's game in Boston. He is as realistic about where they are as he was about where they were before they got hot against the Reds in a weekend series that began with them losing on Friday night.
"We weren't playing good baseball, simple as that, and whatever the reasons," Mozeliak said. "And a trend line like that is never a good place to be. But you do have to be realistic. If you're playing cards, you know that not every card you're dealt is going to be a full house. You look at the last 20 years of Cardinals baseball, and you can see how much success we've had. And have to know that eventually there's going to be a season when the best you can do is jack high."
Mozeliak paused and said, "But again: Nobody walked away. And we didn't go away."
He said: "What we've been reminded of this season is how all young players learn how to do this at a different speed. And for us, especially lately, with our own young players, it's been a case of the right time, the right place, for things to come together. You look at Paul DeJong and he's got -- what? -- 60-plus games in the big leagues. Kolten has three years of service. But now things are coming together for both of them at the exact same time. And sometimes timing like that is what it takes to win."
Stephen Piscotty went on the disabled list in May. Fowler was having trouble with his shoulder. Pham got called up. He had been around before. He played in 78 games last season and hit .226. Now he has played 90 games this season, with that .310 average, and 14 home runs and 49 RBIs.
"Tommy doesn't make the club in Spring Training," Mozeliak said. "Now he's been impactful for the past two-and-a-half months."
So Pham becomes a crucial part of a culture with the Cardinals that is as powerful as there is in the sport, in the front office and on the field and in the stands. Mozeliak worked for Walt Jocketty, became general manager a decade ago, saw his team win an unforgettable Series in 2011 against the Rangers, saw them lose to the Red Sox the way they did two years later. He has been around, the way Molina has been around. So has Wainwright, who threw the curveball that froze Carlos Beltran in a Game 7 of the NL Championship Series one time and put the Cardinals in the '06 Series, which they won from the Tigers. And, of course, there was the time when Pujols, the greatest Cardinal since the great Stan Musial, went away.
Mozeliak's team hasn't gone away. The head guy is right. You play the Cards you're dealt. Now the Cards are in play. Matters as much as it ever has, in St. Louis, Williamsport, anywhere and always. Whether it's a full-house year or not.