ST. LOUIS -- In the closing days of the regular season, manager Mike Matheny's message to the Cardinals was a simple one: "We just fight for that spot to where we can have a fresh start."
That fresh start is now theirs.
Though the Cardinals enter the postseason with 88 wins, the fewest among the National League's playoff-bound teams, the postseason is a stage upon which little from the previous 162 games matters. St. Louis will face the Braves at Turner Field in the first NL Wild Card game on Friday at 5:07 p.m. ET, but this is a franchise with its eyes set on more than just a one-day postseason appearance.
Last year, the Cardinals rode an NL Wild Card berth to a World Series championship. Here are five keys for the club to make that run again and become the first NL team since the 1975-76 Reds to successfully defend a championship:
Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday: The Cardinals' offensive production obviously runs deeper than these two, but the potency of the offense largely depends on whether the pair of All-Star outfielders can emerge from prolonged funks. Holliday was hampered by a back injury on and off all season, and his production waned recently as a result. He hit just .226 with four doubles, three homers and 11 RBIs in September.
Beltran's numbers were well below his career average for most of the second half of the season. He entered October with a .240 average since the All-Star break after finishing June hitting .310. Beltran, though, did show some signs of getting right in September, which he ended with a two-homer, five-RBI day.
The two will continue to assume the Nos. 2 and 3 spots, respectively, in the batting order and will need to be table setters in front of Allen Craig and Yadier Molina, who were the two most consistent contributors in the lineup all year. The depth of the Cardinals' lineup is exceptional if Holliday and Beltran are right.
Chris Carpenter: It was just three months ago that Carpenter was forced to face the reality that he'd likely never take the mound in 2012. He had tried to battle through numbness and weakness in his right shoulder, arm and neck during Spring Training but couldn't. The right-hander resumed throwing in June with the hope that rest had helped. It hadn't. A visit to a specialist followed, and out of that came the announcement that Carpenter would have season-ending surgery.
However, Carpenter's season never ended, a testament to the intensity with which he approached his strengthening exercises. The Cardinals enter the playoffs with one of the greatest postseason pitchers in franchise history having made three regular-season tune-ups. Carpenter lifted the club on his back last October, leading it to another World Series title. He's a guy who has the potential to do it again and could be a rotation wild card that flips a series in the Cardinals' favor.
The rest of the rotation: The Cardinals' ability to weather Carpenter's absence for most of the season speaks to the strength of the rest of the rotation, which stacks up to that of any other NL club. The Cards finished the regular season with one of the lowest rotation ERAs in the league, and it's no secret that postseason success begins (and often ends) with starting pitching.
Kyle Lohse had a career year and is the leader of this staff. However, his previous postseason results would give anyone pause. Adam Wainwright had, by all accounts, a successful first year back from Tommy John surgery, though fatigue could become an issue the longer the Cardinals extend their season.
Jaime Garcia closed out his season in tremendous form, and the Cardinals would likely benefit from working the schedule so Garcia can pitch at home, where he has been so strong. Lance Lynn, an 18-game winner, will likely be pushed to the bullpen, in order to accommodate Carpenter in the postseason rotation.
Defensive stability: By most defensive metrics, the Cardinals ranked no better than average defensively this season. They are especially strong behind the plate (due to Molina) and in center field (Jon Jay) but can be exposed elsewhere. Jay does make up for ground that Beltran and Holliday can't cover, making the infield defense the biggest variable.
When the club lost Rafael Furcal to a season-ending right elbow injury on Aug. 30, the Cardinals' middle-infield defense took a substantial hit. But Pete Kozma stepped in from Triple-A Memphis and stepped up to stabilize things at short. Daniel Descalso did the same at second base, which had seen a merry-go-round of starters earlier in the year. The Cardinals' defense wasn't a liability as the regular season closed, which is part of the reason the club was able to go on the late-season run it did.
Middle relief: The acquisition of Edward Mujica at the non-waiver Trade Deadline gave the Cardinals a formidable trio to cover the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. For the most part, Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte were dominant in the regular season. It's bridging that gap from the starter to Mujica that often proved troublesome.
If the Cardinals opt not to keep Lynn in the rotation, he could be a key addition to the bullpen mix. Joe Kelly, recently moved out of the rotation, shores it up, too. St. Louis still has to decide which left-handed reliever to put on the roster (Marc Rzepczynski or Sam Freeman) and whether Fernando Salas or rookie Trevor Rosenthal will make the cut. How confident Matheny is in the rest of his bullpen will go a long way toward dictating how quickly he pulls his starters.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.