Unlike the juggernauts of 2004 and 2005, who won the division handily, or the exciting 2009 club, who entered the postseason firing on all cylinders, with two aces and late-season pickup, John Smoltz to anchor the bullpen, the 2013 club entered the postseason with no expectations. This was not a team of destiny like the 2011 Cards, but a team that backed into the postseason, like the 2006 edition. No one expected what came next.
Sure, the opening round was predictable enough. A wild-card berth meant we had to burn our ace, Adam Wainwright, in a play-in game against the Reds. Luckily, Wainwright did what Wainwright does against an overmatched Reds team, and threw 7 solid innings, giving up a single run, before handing the ball to Rosenthal for an inning, in which he struck out 2. A shaky, but effective Mujica closed out a 5-2 victory at home, striking out Brandon Phillips with runners on 1st and 2nd.
We took to the road to face an ascendant Atlanta squad, whom everyone expected would handle the Cards in a close series. The Atlanta squad was, in many ways, a mirror image of ours. A young roster of starters, with an ace and emotional leader) on the DL and out for the season (Hudson for the Braves, Carpenter for the Cards), a pair of balanced lineups with few superstars, and two teams looking for new identities under new managers, replacing baseball legends. This series looked to be decided by timely hitting and/or each team's deep bullpen.
The Cards put forth Lance Lynn to face emerging ace Mike Minor in game one, and to no one's surprise, it was a mismatch. Lynn left the game in the 4th inning, after just 11 outs, with men on 2nd and 3rd, and 4 runs having already scored. Kevin Siegrist entered and kept the score 4-1 with a swinging strikeout of Freddie Freeman, before yielding to Michael Wacha in long relief. Wacha kept the score close, with 4 innings of scoreless ball, as the Cards chipped away, but a further run was scratched out in the 8th against Carlos Martinez on a bloop single, and a bunt, followed by a line drive up the middle off John Axford. Minor yielded to the bullpen after 6 solid innings, and 2 earned runs, and the Braves bullpen closed out a 5-2 win.
The Cards needed a win in game 2, and Matheny shocked the punditocracy by turning to his hot hand, Joe Kelly, over his emerging ace, Shelby Miller. Joe Kelly didn't disappoint, working through frequent trouble, but surviving 6+ innings against the low-power Braves lineup, holding them to 6 singles and 3 walks (1 intentional). Kelly left the game in the 7th with a man on first, to an ovation from the Cardinals fans watching the game at Turner Field, and Siegrist entered to strikeout Freeman for the second consecutive day, then was pulled for Seth Maness, who obtained his signature double-play grounder on a nice play by Matt Carpenter to feed Pete Kozma, and a strong throw by Kozma to Matt Adams to end the inning. The Cards led 4-1, on an early solo homer by Carlos Beltran, and a 3 run 6th inning that pushed Julio Tehran from the game after 4 consecutive hits, culminating in a bases-clearing Matt Adams double. The Cardinals would not score again, but Rosenthal provided a shutdown 8th and Mujica, who again made it interesting, brought the tying run to the plate in a 30 pitch 9th inning, before closing out a 4-2 victory.
The Cards returned home with momentum, confidence, and Shelby Miller on the mound facing Kris Medlen. Miller seemed to feed off the home crowd energy, and stepped up with 6 1/3 innings, 2 ER, and 7 Ks before yielding to a pitch count of 110, leaving the Cards with a 3-2 lead. Matheny turned to Siegrist yet again, and Siegrist continued his dominance of Freddie Freeman, this time for an inning-ending a double-play grounder. The Cards would scrape for an additional insurance run on a Matt Holiday single, after which he was replaced, in a controversial pinch-runner move, with Kolten Wong. Wong went first to third on a Yadi Molina hit-and-run, and the Cards plated another run on a sac-fly from Matt Adams. A double-switch pushed Matt Carpenter to third, Wong to second, and Shane Robinson to Matt Holiday's spot in left, and Rosenthal was brought in for yet another 8th inning. This move proved critical, as Rosenthal walked the leadoff hitter, Chris Johnson, bringing Justin Upton to the plate. J. Upton mashed a line drive deep into the left-center gap, but a good jump and a diving grab near the warning track by Robinson allowed him to snag what would've been a double off the wall. Rosenthal roared his approval, and drew the emotional lift to escape the inning with a groundout and a strikeout. The Cards passed off the 4-2 lead to Mujica, who proceeded to allow a single, a double, and a single to three of the first four batters, coughing up the lead and sending us to extra innings. John Axford was called in to stop the bleeding, to the collective gasp of Cardinal Nation, and to the surprise of many, struck out Dan Uggla to keep the game tied, before handing the ball off to Randy Choate, who retired Brian McCann on a hard grounder to Wong, ranging deep into the right-center gap.
The Braves appeared to have the emotional edge entering what could be a protracted battle of the bullpens, but Shane Robinson had other plans, jacking a two out double in the 10th inning. Matt Carpenter came to the plate, and was walked semi-intentionally on 5 pitches to a chorus of boos. Luis Avilan having been used in the 7th, the Braves turned to Paul Maholm for a lefty-lefty matchup against Jon Jay. The Chief Justice battled his way to a 3-2 walk, bringing Carlos Beltran to the plate. Maholm/Beltran proved a mismatch, as Carlos added to his postseason legend with a 3-run homer. Carlos Martinez was brought in to close out an emotional 7-4 victory.
Game 4 proved a mismatch, as Adam Wainwright came home to Atlanta with a vengeance. He pitched 8 innings, giving up just a single run, and striking out 10, throwing knee-buckling curves and hitting the outside corner with his fastball in any count. The Cards offense was held to just 2 runs in 5.1 innings off Alex Wood, but forced Atlanta's hand with consecutive hits in the 6th. The Braves bullpen would yield three more runs in the 7th off a Carpenter walk, Beltran single, and a Yadi home run, giving the Cards a 5-1 victory that didn't feel that close, closed out with an efficient 9th inning by Randy Choate and John Axford.
In Game 5, Mike Matheny made the overdue decision to turn to Michael Wacha instead of Lance Lynn. "This is the postseason, and sometimes you have to play the hot hand," Matheny would say. "This is nothing against Lance, who is a great starter. But right now, Wacha is looking unhittable, and we plan to use that to our benefit tonight." Wacha did not disappoint, throwing 7 innings on 103 pitches, allowing just 4 hits and one walk, with 8 strikeouts, and no runs allowed. His dominance overshadowed a good start by Mike Minor, as the Cards closed out the series with a pair of uneventful innings by Rosenthal and Mujica, and a 2-0 win. The Cards would advance to face Clayton Kershaw, Yasiel Puig, and the Dodgers in round 2.