The 2020 Cardinals’ season is officially over. Thanks to their victory yesterday over the Brewers, the Redbirds are headed back to the postseason, without having to play out a doubleheader in Detroit to determine their fate. They are the fifth seed in the National League, headed toward a showdown with the suddenly good San Diego Padres. In a playoff field of more than half the teams in the game, it doesn’t necessarily feel like making the postseason is much of an accomplishment.
But it is.
The Cardinals of 2020 were not, it must be said, the best team of my lifetime. They weren’t the most talented team of my lifetime. They were, however, almost certainly the most resilient team I’ve ever seen.
No other team in baseball this year endured anything particularly close to what this Cardinal team did, and yet at the end of it all, the Cards are still standing, advancing to October in spite of it all. Plenty of other teams had injuries, a few others even had Covid scares. Honestly, though, if I had told you back in March that this club was going to lose one starter to a flexor tendon issue for the entire season, finish the year with another on the shelf preparing for Tommy John, and a third was going to miss time with a serious illness and never really look to be at full strength all year, what would you have guessed the club’s record would be? What about if I also told you a dozen players would miss time with that same illness? What about if I told you the entire club would be locked down for over two weeks, unable to even practice on a regular basis? What about if I told you the club would face a literally unprecedented schedule for a month and a half, playing over 50 games in 40 days, pulling doubleheaders twice a week for six weeks straight?
All of these things should have sunk the 2020 Cardinals. None of them did.
This team looked exhausted by the end. As great a season as Paul Goldschmidt had, he looked completely cashed out by the last week. Not surprising, considering he played every single game this year, 58 contests in all, doubleheaders included, going weeks at a time without any rest days. Pitchers struggled to ever find any kind of rhythm all season, even the ones who never had any issues physically. Paul DeJong never really looked like himself after getting sick. Carlos Martinez looked physically compromised all season.
None of it mattered. The Cardinals did what they always do, which is find a way to hold things together and win baseball games. They grabbed a five seed, meaning they would have been in even in a normal year, and now we’ll see what happens. Do I expect them to go on a deep postseason run? No. I do not. But at least they have the chance.
The Brewers didn’t have half as many things go wrong as the Cardinals this year, and they finished with a worse record than the Redbirds. The Nationals, coming off a title run, lost Strasburg to injury and let Anthony Rendon walk, but also saw Trea Turner and Juan Soto emerge as elite, MVP-level players. They collapsed in a puddle and finished with the third worst record in the NL. The Phillies got a Cy Young contender season from Zack Wheeler, saw Aaron Nola return to form as a top of the rotation starter, and got pretty much what they paid for out of Bryce Harper. They’re sitting home too, after a 28-32 finish. The Diamondbacks pushed a bunch of their chips in over the offseason and have their own Cy Young contender in Zac Gallen (I don’t want to talk about it), and they finished 25-35. None of those teams missed two and a half weeks due to a pandemic, and none of them had to play the most grueling schedule in baseball history. And yet, they’re all still headed home now, while the Cardinals are moving on.
The Cardinals have not had a losing record since 2007. They have had exactly one season below .500 since the 2000s began. I will admit there is a part of me that wishes they actually had been bad this year, banked a high draft pick in 2021, and been able to justify at least a small-scale sell in order to restock the larder going forward. That didn’t happen, though, because that never happens to the Cardinals. No matter how bad things get, this franchise always finds a way. They may not be good enough every year, but they always give it a run.
I will never offer anything but respect to the 2020 Cardinals. This was a team that, by all rights, should have folded. It was a team I occasionally wished would fold, because it was clear that the universe was against them pretty much from jump street. And yet, here we are. It is nearly October in St. Louis, and there is still baseball to be played. It will be different this year, certainly, and the road getting here was convoluted and filled with potholes. None of that matters. This team went through hell and came out the other side.
This was an accomplishment.