Year after year, Cardinals find ways to contend

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Even with an ever-shifting roster, the St. Louis Cardinals have a chance to reach the NL Championship Series for the fourth straight year.

"When we show up at spring training every year we set our goal to win the World Series," ace Adam Wainwright said Wednesday. "Anything else is silly. What else are you playing for if that's not the goal."

The Cardinals repeated as NL Central champions and made it to the postseason for the 11th time in 15 years by overcoming a sputtering offense and injuries to Yadier Molina, Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia. The profile is one of resiliency heading into an NL Division Series against the Dodgers that starts Friday at Los Angeles, which will start two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw.

"I'm pitching against the Dodgers. All this me vs. Kershaw stuff is blown way out of proportion," Wainwright said. "I understand it's good TV."

Molina missed two months with a torn ligament in his right thumb, Wacha missed two months with a shoulder injury. Garcia lasted just 12 starts before surgery to relieve nerve compression.

Molina's injury had the potential to be devastating but A.J. Pierzynski and Tony Cruz filled the void, and the Cardinals moved into the division lead for good two days after Molina returned in late August.

"I thought our guys did a nice job considering all of baseball said we couldn't win a game without him," manager Mike Matheny said. "That's a knock on the rest of the guys. They realize that this stuff happens and you've just got to figure out a way to keep going."

Four straight postseasons is a franchise best for the 90-win Cardinals, who won the 2011 World Series in Tony La Russa's final season.

Though the team expects to be a contender, Mike Matheny said there's no arrogance in the clubhouse.

"The conversations we had as we were popping champagne was, 'Don't take this for granted because there's some guys who had incredible careers who have never done it one time,'" the manager said. "This will be the last time for somebody in here. That's just kind of the facts. The game will humble you if you start taking the perspective that this is just going to happen all the time."

This time last fall, Pat Neshek was looking for work, Jhonny Peralta was rebuilding his reputation with the Tigers, Randal Grichuk was a future throw-in in a deal that sent former October hero David Freese packing and John Lackey was about to augment his reputation as a big-game pitcher by beating the Cardinals twice in the World Series.

All four figure to play key roles against the high-spending Dodgers.

"We battled through the ups and downs and we got there," first baseman Matt Adams said. "I think what helps us is knowing the core group of guys on this team have been in the playoffs basically every year."

Peralta hit a team-high 21 homers and has been smooth at shortstop. Grichuk batted .320 the final month with two homers and four RBIs, playing his way into a platoon with top prospect Oscar Taveras. Grichuk likely will start the opener.

"I really just try to go up there and play with confidence," Grichuk said. "I looked terrible when I first was up here. I decided, 'Hey, I've got to play my game.'"

The 35-year-old Lackey went deep his last two starts and will start Game 3 Monday in St. Louis.

Neshek, 34, signed a minor league deal in February and the side-armer morphed into a first-time All-Star. Neshek's ERA was under 1.00 until late August, and he had six saves on days off for closer Trevor Rosenthal.

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