| USA TODAY
Early exit for Yankees? Our MLB experts predict playoff dark horses and disappointments
SportsPulse: Which Chicago team will surprise? Is there a team from Ohio that could make a run? Are the Yankees primed for an early exit? Our experts predict their dark horses and disappointments for the postseason.
SAN DIEGO — The St. Louis Cardinals woke up Wednesday morning, took their COVID-19 tests, walked outside, took a deep breath, smelled the Pacific Ocean air, and couldn’t believe the strange sensation that hit them.
Two off days. A schedule with no more doubleheaders. A roster without a single player out with the coronavirus.
Being a playoff team, with Game 1 Wednesday against the San Diego Padres in the National League wild card series, has never felt so delightful.
They weren’t supposed to be here.
There was a time they wondered if they’d resume their regular season schedule.
When they finally resumed, with 16 games rescheduled, the schedule was so daunting it was almost comical.
Fifty-three games, 44 days, 11 doubleheaders, including six in a 14-day span.
“The mental and physical toughness required for that,’’ Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said, “was almost beyond the boundaries of human capacity, quite candidly.’’
Yet, against all odds, in what they’re calling their most miraculous season ever, the Cardinals are back in the postseason, trying to pull off one of sports’ greatest comeback stories.
“I tell you what,’’ Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter said, “what we were able to accomplish, do something that is so unprecedented, and had never been done in sports anywhere.
“You talk about a team that lost half of their roster from the start of this season. We never had our full roster. And to play 53 games in 44 days, it was unbelievably challenging.’’
The Cardinals played their first five games on the schedule, but after traveling to Milwaukee on an off-day on July 30, they had a COVID-19 outbreak, and were quarantined for eight days in Milwaukee.
They traveled back to St. Louis to be quarantined at home, had two workouts, and on the eve of their return, had another outbreak. They didn’t play again until the team ordered a caravan of 41 rental cars, with everyone driving 298 miles separately to Chicago, for an Aug. 15 doubleheader against the White Sox.
“When we didn’t play for two weeks,’’ first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said, “you had no idea what to expect. How were we going to play? What was going to happen? What was the schedule going to be like? It kind of felt like if we made the playoffs, it was going to be a huge accomplishment in itself, or to even be in the race.’’
2020 MLB DEBATE: Ranking the eight Wild Card playoff games
PREVIEW: Padres vs. Cardinals
Well, six weeks later, they wound up with a 30-28 record, finishing second in the NL Central, despite a schedule playing against only the NL and AL Central teams, where seven of the 10 teams made the postseason.
“You combine the fact that our challenges just from the logistic standpoint,’’ Carpenter said, “but also from a competitive standpoint. We were playing the best teams in baseball. And doing it every single night. Really, really proud of our club, what we were able to accomplish.
“To finally get back to normal nine-inning games with some off days, it feels really good.’’
Considering the route it took to reach the postseason, the Cardinals figure as long as they’re here, they plan to stick around for awhile.
“We didn’t get here to get here,’’ Shildt said. “We got here to move forward. We build on it. We know that’s part of our fabric, which gives you a lot of individual and collective confidence.
“Now it’s time to go lay it out there.’’
Really, considering they had 18 players and staff members quarantined for three weeks, with 13 players making their major-league debut, what do the Cardinals have to lose?
One of those players happens to be 32-year-old Korean pitcher Kwang Hyun Kim. He’ll make history Wednesday when he steps onto the mound, becoming the first pitcher to save a game in his major-league debut and become the Game 1 starter in the postseason the same year, according to STATS.
It’s only fitting Kim is on the mound considering he’s the Cardinals’ poster child of resiliency, leaving his family behind all season in Korea, missing two starts when hospitalized with a kidney problem, and now is pitching in their biggest game of the season.
“Having gone through those adversities, we have become stronger,” said Kim, 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA in his seven starts. “This experience we had, even though it was hard times during the regular season, that will help us be better in the postseason.”
“This was by far the most daunting and difficult year any of us have ever been through,” Cardinals president John Mozeliak said. “New obstacles. New challenges. And they all stuck together.
“The doubleheaders, the scheduling, it’s been really daunting. For those guys to never complain, for the manager and coaches to just keep holding it together …I couldn’t be more proud of a group than this group.’’
The Cardinals had 10 players miss games with COVID-19, requiring Mozeliak to call up players virtually every day. There were 11 players making their major-league debut alone on the Cardinals’ first road trip back in Chicago. Shildt met some of the players for the first time only after putting their names on the lineup card, and trying not to cry when looking at their upcoming chaotic schedule.
“I looked at it for three minutes,’’ Shildt said, “and my head about blew off.’’
The Cardinals survived, but never thrived, just hanging around, never going more than two games above or two games below .500. But now, after spending the last two days exhaling, they believe they’re equipped to pull off a miracle for the ages.
“Fans don’t really understand what we kind of went through, they just see the score at the end of every game, and that’s fine,” Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader said. “We accomplished a lot. And I think having something to play for, and in reality nothing to lose because of how far we’ve come, I think this group goes to dangerous places.
“We’re coming for it all.’’
No reason to stop now.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale