Tyler O'Neill Nolan Arenado Paul Goldschmidt

How the Cardinals’ 17-game win streak got them into the 2021 playoffs

For most of the summer of 2021, the Cardinals were an average team, treading water in their pursuit of the playoffs. Then, fueled by a bolstered pitching staff and a power-packed offense, they reeled off a franchise-record 17-game win streak to earn their place in October.

The Cardinals had led the National League Central Division for most of May, but in June they went just 10-17 and slid into a tie for third place, eight games behind the division-leading Brewers. By the end of August, the Cardinals were 12 games behind Milwaukee. If they were to qualify for the playoffs, they would need to do so as a wild-card team.

The Dodgers, who were 1 ½ games behind the Giants in the NL West, held the first wild-card position and a 15-game lead over the Cardinals, leaving only the second wild-card within easy striking distance. For that, the Cardinals would need to pass the Reds, Padres, and Braves and hold off the Phillies.

On September 10, following a 4-2 loss to the Reds, the Cardinals trailed the Padres and Braves by 3 ½ games and the Reds by 3 games. They were just ½ game ahead of the Phillies and one game ahead of the Mets. With approximately three weeks remaining in the season, it was going to take a strong finish to reach the postseason.

A “strong finish” didn’t begin to describe it.


Saturday, September 11

Fittingly, the Cardinals’ history-making win streak began with a comeback at Busch Stadium.

After starting pitcher Miles Mikolas was touched up for four runs in the third inning, the Cardinals slowly worked their way back. Nolan Arenado hit an RBI triple and a two-run homer, Paul DeJong added a solo shot, and the Cardinals’ bullpen threw four scoreless innings in a 6-4 win.

“Nobody gave up. Nobody felt down,” Arenado said.[1]


Sunday, September 12

A day after the Cardinals’ bats picked up their starting pitcher, the St. Louis hurlers led the way in a 2-0 win over the Reds.

Trade deadline acquisition J.A. Happ threw 5 1/3 scoreless innings before Luis Garcia, T.J. McFarland, Genesis Cabrera, and Giovanny Gallegos combined for 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief as the Reds managed just five hits for the game.

Arenado’s two-run, first-inning homer proved the difference.

Now, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared, the pursuit of the wild card was “a horse race.”[2]

“Around the stretch they come,” Cardinals manager Mike Schildt said. “They know we’ve got good closing speed.”[3]


Monday, September 13

With their third consecutive victory, the Cardinals officially had a win streak on their hands.

In a game that pitted 40-year-old Adam Wainwright against 41-year-old Mets starter Rich Hill, the Cardinals posted four runs in the ninth inning to cruise to a 7-0 victory.

Paul Goldschmidt hit his 25th home run of the season and six different Cardinals drove in runs in support of Wainwright, who scattered four hits and three walks over six innings and lowered his ERA to 2.88. McFarland, Alex Reyes, and Kodi Whitley each threw scoreless innings of relief.


Tuesday, September 14

It took a wild win for the Cardinals to move into a wild-card spot.

After the Mets’ Javier Baez homered in the bottom of the ninth to send the game into extra innings, the Cardinals needed all three runs they scored in the 11th to hold off the Mets in a 7-6 win.

In the 11th, with Yadier Molina opening the inning at second base, Edmundo Sosa hit an RBI single and Andrew Knizner followed with a two-run single to give St. Louis a 7-4 lead.

The Mets, however, didn’t go easily, as Pete Alonzo smacked an RBI double and scored on an error three batters later. With runners on first and second, however, Kwang Hyun Kim got Albert Almora to ground out to second base to end the game and earn his first save of the season.

Tyler O’Neill hit his 26th homer of the season and finished with three RBIs, and Reyes earned his eighth win of the year with a scoreless inning of relief. With the win, the Cardinals moved ½ game ahead of the Reds for the second wild-card position.

“We’ve been waiting to bust out all year,” O’Neill said. “This is crunch time.”[4]


Wednesday, September 15

The Cardinals completed their three-game sweep of the Mets behind the strength of a five-run first inning.

Harrison Bader, Goldschmidt, Arenado, and Edmundo Sosa each homered and Jon Lester earned the 199th win of his career as the Cardinals picked up an 11-4 victory. Altogether, the lineup produced 16 hits, including eight for extra bases.

“Ultimately, the best baseball is when you’re going it all together,” Schildt said. “You’re getting the hitting, consistent at-bats. You’re getting the quality pitching. It’s just about doing it all together at one time.”[5]


Friday, September 17

Back at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals continued their winning ways with an 8-2 series-opening victory over the Padres. With their sixth straight win, they tied their season high.

Dylan Carlson homered twice – including a grand slam – and Mikolas threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings as the Cardinals led the entire way, scoring four runs in the eighth to put the game out of reach. O’Neill’s first-inning home run gave him 27 for the year.

The win marked Mikolas’s first since 2019. Surgery to repair a flexor tendon in his pitching arm had forced him to miss the 2020 season, and he had just been reactivated from the 60-day injured list in August.

“I took a nice sage bath the other night,” he said.[6]

Meanwhile, excitement started to build as the Cardinals’ win streak reached six games.

“No one knows where the best stretch of Cardinals baseball we have watched this season is headed,” wrote St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Ben Frederickson. “No one knows why the clubs that could have stomped it out before it ever started spent the past weeks dissolving like Tums dropped into battery acid. All we can know for sure is that the focus now is fully back on this season. This postseason. Not the offseason. Not next season. And considering the way things were headed, that’s worth some celebration, isn’t it?”[7]


Saturday, September 18

It took a three-run, eighth-inning rally for the Cardinals to extend their win streak to seven games.

Padres starter Yu Darvish was dominant for seven innings, holding the Cardinals to just three hits while striking out nine. Meanwhile, Wainwright allowed just two runs over his even innings, allowing RBI singles by Tommy Pham and Victor Caratini in the fourth inning.

With reliever Emilio Pagan in the game and the Padres leading 2-0, the Cardinals finally struck in the eighth. Bader led off with a double to left field and scored on a sacrifice fly by Tommy Edman. After Goldschmidt drew a walk, O’Neill homered to left field to give St. Louis a 3-2 victory.

Justin Miller earned the win with a scoreless eighth inning and Gallegos earned his ninth save of the season. Wainwright struck out two batters to finish with 1,999 for his career.

“I just found out I only needed one strikeout to get to 2,000,” Wainwright said. “If I had known that, I would have started pumping stuff into the dirt to get some swings and misses. I thought I needed a couple more.”[8]


Sunday, September 19, 2021

One day after coming from behind to beat the Padres, the Cardinals needed to fight of a San Diego rally to come away with an 8-7 victory and complete their second consecutive series sweep.

The Cardinals jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first inning as Fernando Tatis Jr. misplayed a fly ball, Sosa hit an RBI double, and Bader drove in two with a double of his own. The Padres, however, fought back. Even after the Cardinals scored two in the fifth inning to extend their lead to 7-3, the Padres scored three runs in the eighth to pull within 8-7.

Gallegos proved up to the task in the ninth. Striking out two of the three batters he faced, he earned his 10th save of the season and dropped his ERA to 3.27.

More importantly, the win marked St. Louis’s eighth straight and gave the Cardinals a three-game lead for the second wild-card spot.

“Huge, huge series,” Happ said. “That’s definitely an understatement, but we definitely have a … ways to go yet.”[9]


Monday, September 20

The Cardinals’ ninth consecutive victory marked the 200th win of Lester’s career.

The recently acquired veteran held the Brewers to two runs over six innings and Whitley, McFarland, and Luis Garcia combined for three scoreless innings of relief in the 5-2 win. Arenado hit a two-run homer in the first inning and Molina drove in a pair of runs.

“I don’t think people realize how hard it is to have winning streaks over four, five, six games,” Lester said. “They don’t happen a lot. Now that we’re at nine, hopefully we can keep going.”[10]


Tuesday, September 21

The Cardinals’ win streak reached double digits thanks to five shutout innings from Jake Woodford and another strong performance from the bullpen.

With Brandon Woodford on the mound for the Brewers, O’Neill and Edman each drove in runs and the Cardinals’ bullpen again came through, allowing a single run over four innings. Reyes and Cabrera each threw scoreless innings of relief before a sacrifice fly by Willy Adames cut the Cardinals’ lead to 2-1.

That proved to be plenty for Gallegos, who earned his 11th save of the season as the Cardinals reached 10 consecutive wins for the first time since 2001. It marked just the 13th time the Cardinals had won 10 consecutive games in franchise history.

“It’s hard to capture because I don’t plan on being done with it,” Shildt said.[11]


Wednesday, September 22

After their pitching led them to victories in the first two games of the series, it was the offense’s turn in a 10-2 win over the Brewers. O’Neill and Goldschmidt each homered and the Cardinals totaled 15 hits, including seven for extra bases.

Milwaukee starter Brett Anderson lasted just 1 2/3 innings, allowing six runs – two earned – over that span. Goldschmidt and Bader each had three hits to pace the Redbird attack.

Despite the lopsided win, the victory was marred by Arenado’s early exit with back tightness just a few innings after he dove over a tarp to make a catch in foul territory.

“Just wanted to get him out of there – precautionary,” Shildt said. “We’ll evaluate it. There’s always some concern. It felt better after the game than it did when he got taken out. That’s encouraging.”[12]


Thursday, September 23

The Cardinals concluded their sweep of the Brewers by erasing a five-run deficit to rally for an 8-5 win.

Wainwright – who entered the game one strikeout shy of the milestone – struck out the 2,000th batter of his career in the fourth inning, joining Bob Gibson as the only pitchers to strike out 2,000 batters during their tenure with the Cardinals. Though Wainwright emerged with his place in history, the game proved to be a struggle, as the Brewers posted a four-run first inning. Wainwright left the game after four innings with Milwaukee leading 5-0.

As they had throughout the win streak, however, the bullpen picked up their starter. Kwang Hyun Kim threw two scoreless innings and McFarland, Garcia, and Garcia each threw one to give the St. Louis offense a chance to rally back.

Molina got the Cardinals on the board in the fifth with an RBI single. In the seventh, the Cardinals scored four runs to tie the game, including a two-run homer by Goldschmidt. In the eighth, Arenado scored on a passed ball and Molina added a sacrifice fly to give St. Louis the lead, and one inning later Goldschmidt added his second home run of the night to make the final score 8-5.

At 12 games, their win streak was now the longest by a Cardinals team since 1982 and tied for the second-longest in franchise history, trailing the 14-game win streak that took place July 2-18 in 1935.


Friday, September 24

On Friday, September 24, the Cubs had two opportunities to end the Cardinals’ win streak. They couldn’t do it, and as a result, the Cardinals tied the franchise record.

Goldschmidt and O’Neill each hit their 30th home runs of the season and Jose Rondon added a two-run shot as the Cardinals won the first game of the double-header 8-5.

In Game 2, Lars Nootbaar hit two homers, O’Neill hit his second homer of the day, and Bader added a solo blast in a 12-4 win. Molina hit the 400th double of his career to drive in the first two runs of the game.


Saturday, September 25

Another 8-5 win extended the Cardinals’ win streak to 15 games. Bader, O’Neill, and DeJong each homered, Lester threw five innings, and the bullpen held the Cubs to just one run in four innings of work.

The Cubs led 4-2 after they scored two runs in the bottom of the fourth, but the Cardinals rallied for three runs in the seventh and three more in the ninth to continue their win streak.

“Everyone is stepping up,” Wainwright said. “New heroes every day.”[13]

“It’s the complete elation of knowing every time we come to the field that we’re going to win,” McFarland said. “It’s that confidence. It’s almost that motivation. Every time we come to the field we’re expecting to win. We’re rising to the occasion.”[14]


Sunday, September 26

With their 16th consecutive win on September 26, the Cardinals also completed their fourth consecutive series sweep.

Once again, the Cardinals came from behind after Chicago took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the fourth. Goldschmidt and Bader each hit two-out, solo home runs and Cardinals played small ball in the ninth, scoring on a wild pitch and an RBI groundout.

Woodford allowed two runs over 5 1/3 innings before Andrew Miller, Whitley, Cabrera, and Gallegos held the Cubs scoreless the rest of the way. Gallegos’s scoreless ninth inning was good for his 14th save.


Tuesday, September 28

With a 6-2 win over the Central Division-leading Brewers, the Cardinals’ win streak reached 17 games. Even more importantly, they clinched their third consecutive playoff berth.

Wainwright improved to 17-7 on the season by holding Milwaukee to two runs over six innings, and McFarland, Garcia, and Gallegos combined for three scoreless innings of relief. Carlson, Rondon, and Arenado each hit solo home runs.

“There’s no reason to stop,” Wainwright said. “We feel dangerous.”[15]


Conclusion of the Season

Ultimately, the Cardinals’ win streak was the product of luck, skill, and a well-rounded team getting strong performances on defense, from their bullpen, and from their offense. Goldschmidt, Arenado, and O’Neill each reached 30 home runs for the season, and Goldschmidt and Bader were especially potent throughout the winning streak.

Finally, on September 29, the streak came to an end, as the Milwaukee staff held the Cardinals to just three hits. Adrian Houser threw five shutout innings before Brent Suter, Brad Boxberger, and Aaron Ashby combined for four no-hit innings.

The Cardinals went 2-2 over the final four games of the regular season; however, their 17-game surge placed them seven games ahead of Cincinnati for the second wild-card spot. Though the Dodgers beat St. Louis 3-1 in the one-game wild-card playoff, the Cardinals saw what they could accomplish during their incredible September run.

“Attitude is everything. Success is contagious. Luck favors the prepared,” Mikolas said. “There are a dozen cliches that could describe the way our winning streak went, but the best way to describe it is teamwork and having everyone pushing toward a common goal will win out.”[16]

Enjoy this post? Find similar stories listed by decade or by player.

[1] Rick Hummel, “Arenado Caps Cardinals’ Rally,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 12, 2021.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Birds Back In Business,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 13, 2021.

[3] Rick Hummel, “Birds Back In Business,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 13, 2021.

[4] Derrick Goold, “One Wild Cards Win,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 15, 2021.

[5] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals Put On A Show,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 16, 2021.

[6] Rick Hummel, “Mikolas picks up win, Carlson hits two HRs,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 18, 2021.

[7] Ben Frederickson, “Redbirds making this a September to remember,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 18, 2021.

[8] Rick Hummel, “O’Neill homer in eighth helps Birds win again,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 19, 2021.

[9] Rick Hummel, “Some Wild Developments,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 20, 2021.

[10] Ryan Herrera, “Cards roll to 9th straight in Lester’s 200th W,” MLB.com, September 20, 2021, https://www.mlb.com/news/jon-lester-gets-200th-win-for-cardinals-in-playoff-hunt.

[11] Derrick Goold, “A Perfect 10: Redbirds roll on,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 22, 2021.

[12] Derrick Goold, “Cards crank it up to 11,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 23, 2021.

[13] Derrick Goold, “A Roll For The Ages,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 26, 2021.

[14] Derrick Goold, “A Roll For The Ages,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 26, 2021.

[15] Derrick Goold, “Cards win 17th in row, clinch playoff slot,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 29, 2021.

[16] Derrick Goold, “Run Is Done For Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 30, 2021.