Six days ago, around 4 p.m. ET, St. Louis Cardinals fans had had just about enough of their team. I certainly had. Heading into this season, this looked like the most powerful Cardinals team since the 2004 juggernaut that won 105 games, had three MVP candidates (Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds) and seemed to be up 4-1 in the third inning of every game. General manager John Mozeliak had reinvested the money saved from letting Pujols go in an intelligent, efficient fashion, and he had a trove of prospects ready to take over and dominate the National League Central for years to come. The Cardinals were baseball's model organization, and, frankly, I figured they'd win that division by 10 games.
And then this season started, and everything went wrong. Michael Wacha, Jaime Garcia, Kevin Siegrist and Yadier Molina all got hurt. The lineup stopped hitting, especially for power. The bullpen, the strength down the stretch last year, began popping rivets in every spot. The prospects fizzled to slow starts. And the manager, Mike Matheny, who had shown considerable improvement in his second season, played struggling veterans over promising rookies out of what appeared to be pure stubbornness.
The Brewers jumped out to a hot start and the Cardinals could never quite catch them; Milwaukee had at least a share of first place from April 5 up to last Saturday, and the Cardinals had a negative run differential. Worst of all: The Cubs, the blasted, hapless rival Cubs, had come into St. Louis and wiped out the Cardinals two straight games, doing it with hot power hitting prospects that Cards fans thought they were supposed to have.
It wasn't just the present season that looked dark; the Cardinals appeared to be falling behind in perpetuity. This amazing Cardinals two decades -- St. Louis has appeared in the NLCS in 1996, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012 and 2013 -- seemed to be coming to an end. After a dismal 5-1 loss to the Cubs in the first game of that Saturday's doubleheader, the Cardinals had lost four in a row, fallen out of the second Wild Card spot and looked ready to pack it all in. Considering the Cardinals' success (and the I'd-argue-misguided-but-occasionally-still-applicable-I-gotta-admit sense that the fanbase has grown smug and superior), there wasn't much sympathy to be had throughout baseball. People are sick of the Cardinals, and there was a chance they might at last be rid of them in October.
Nope. Since that loss in the first game of the doubleheader … the Cardinals have won six straight games over division rivals, and the Brewers have lost nine in a row. St. Louis fans went from having it up to here with their team to having a four-game lead in the division and a shot at once again having the best record in the National League. For crying out loud, the Cardinals have a magic number now. (It's 19, which is lower than the Dodgers' number and the same as the Angels'.) If they can win two of three over the Brewers this weekend, the race will essentially be over. It happened like that.
What changed? Well, it's six games: Nothing can quite change enough in six games to make a huge amount of difference. It's just a streak. The National League Central has been so jumbled all season that it was really just waiting on someone to get hot. It is to the Cardinals' good fortune that their hot streak happened to coincide with the Brewers' collapse. (The Brewers are so rough right now that they lost to the Cardinals in a game they should have won about six different times.) Six games shouldn't change nearly as much as the last six games have. It's a matter of circumstance, albeit a definitive one.
The problem for the rest of the National League is that the Cardinals team that's likely going to show up in October now -- Baseball Prospectus now has them at 81.3 percent to win the division after having them around 35 percent a week ago -- is a lot better than the one that has been so frustrating this season. The Cardinals have all their reinforcements now.
Last night, Wacha returned from an 11-week absence and looked like the old Wacha for three innings, regularly topping 97 mph on the gun and flashing his new snapping curveball. Wacha is working his way back to full strength for October, which the current schedule should allow: He'll be ready to go a full eight or nine by playoff time. Adding him to a rotation of Adam Wainwright (who has had his own struggles of late), Lance Lynn and John Lackey (with a rejuvenated Shelby Miller waiting) arguably makes the teams' starting pitcher stronger than it was last October.
The bullpen has a ton more options now too, especially now that Carlos Martinez is back in his familiar October dominance mode in the eighth inning. St. Louis has multiple late-inning options, with Martinez, All-Star Pat Neshek and Seth Maness from the right side, and Randy Choate, Sam Freeman and even prospect Marco Gonzalez potentially from the left, and Trevor Rosenthal (who leads baseball in saves and has rediscovered his control after a blip last month) closing it out.
But the lineup -- which has been the persistent issue all season -- is what's really starting to come together. Basically, every Cardinals position player (with the exception of first baseman Matt Adams, who is battling an oblique injury) has gotten hot at the same time. Jon Jay, whom the Cardinals are always trying to force out of the lineup and is constantly forcing himself back in, is hitting .319 and actually leads the team in on-base percentage. (He has settled into the No. 2 spot in the order after All-Star Matt Carpenter.) Kolten Wong has grabbed the second base job, at last, and is second in the NL in homers among second basemen. Johnny Peralta will end up leading all Major League shortstops in WAR by the end of the year Yadier Molina is back and healthy.
And most of all, Matt Holliday, suffering through the worst offensive season of his career, has exploded, driving in 12 runs in the first three games of this six-game win streak. Rookie phenom Oscar Taveras is still getting his sea legs, but this is where Mozeliak's depth comes into play: His right-field options include Jay (with a resurgent Peter Bourjos in center), Taveras and Randal Grichuk (who has destroyed lefthanders since being called up after hitting 25 homers in Triple-A). The Cardinals team fans were waiting for, the one that can come after you from all directions, has finally arrived.
It is important not to get carried away: Literally less than a week ago this team had me and my fellow fans ready to claw our eyes out. (And I am not ruling out that writing this column has put a hex on them, which will be my cross to bear.) But in the last week, the Cardinals might have found themselves. The time to knock this team out -- the time to assure that the world wouldn't be jeering those damned Cardinals all October once more -- has passed. You blinked, and the Cardinals took a four-game lead and a stranglehold on the NL Central. Again. Let the Cardinals hate re-commence. We're ready for it. After how things looked a week ago, we're happy to have it.