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ST. LOUIS -- It was the wake-up call heard 'round the Midwest, stunning this close-knit St. Louis Cardinals team, and perhaps jarring them to their senses in time to win the National League Central.

Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, tired of seeing his team underperform this season, woke his club up from their mid-season slumber by trading two of their most popular players, and telling us Friday the dramatic moves were needed.

So hello, John Lackey.

Good-bye, Allen Craig and Joe Kelly.

"Fire away,'' Mozeliak said, greeting the media horde looking for answers.

Mozeliak was quite cognizant his players were upset Thursday when he traded Craig and Kelley to the Boston Red Sox for Lackey, and infuriated they learned of their departure watching TV and Twitter.

"This is tough, just because we're all so close,'' Cardinals starter Shelby Miller said. "It's tough to see one buddy go, let alone two of them.

"All you can do is trust that they're doing something to help get us better."

Mozeliak apologizes the way they learned of the deal, saying it was virtually impossible to inform them before the deal was finalized in this new age of social media.

Yet, he's not about to apologize for shaking up the club, believing they weren't going to win the NL Central unless moves were made.

"Obviously, you want to have people trust you in that clubhouse,'' Mozeliak says. "Nobody wants to be told they're traded. I understand that.

"But I have a responsibility also to try to put together the best team possible.''

Mozeliak, who saw no avenue to upgrade their offense, ranked second-worst in baseball, instead went for pitching. He gave up an outfield prospect, James Ramsey, and grabbed Justin Masterson (4-6, 5.51 ERA) from the Cleveland Indians, hoping a change-of-scenery can help him revert to his All-Star form.

He then had the choice of going after aces David Price or Jon Lester, and passed, refusing to part with any of their top prospects, let alone rookie right fielder Oscar Taveras or rookie starter Carlos Martinez.

He instead went after Lackey, calling him one of the top 25 starters in baseball, and believing he'll be the ideal No. 2 starter behind Adam Wainwright if they indeed are in the postseason.

The cost was significant.

Too high, if you listen to major-league talent evaluators.

Yet, maybe it's an appropriate package if the Cardinals believe that Kelly will be nothing more than a No. 4 starter, and Craig will never again be the same hitter -- struggling all year after his severe foot injury last season. He's hitting just.237 with a .346 slugging percentage -- 120 points lower than his career average. And yes, he still has three years and $25.5 million remaining in his contract.

Mozeliak wouldn't publicly divulge whether he believes Craig, 30, will ever return to All-Star form, as one of the most feared hitters in the National League. Yet, he made it clear that if Craig wasn't traded now, he likely would have been gone this winter, with outfield prospects Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty and Charles Tilson.

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"I do believe that at some point, I think the outfield would have to be addressed, whether now or this off-season,'' Mozeliak said. "If you're playing well, you're not factoring in any type of movement. But I think where we were at this time, we felt it was an opportunity to eliminate some of that.''

It also eliminates Cardinals manager Mike Matheny's nightly decision on whether to play Taveras or Craig. His hand is now forced. Taveras will be in the starting lineup every day.

"I think that's being overstated,'' Mozeliak said. "I imagine in Mike's shoes, you're trying to play whoever is being productive. At the time, we just weren't getting a lot of productivity out of right field. It's tough, trying to balance playing time and having success.''

If Matheny had any problem with the trade, certainly he isn't going to publicly reveal his thoughts. He's paid to manage, he said, not play assistant GM. He plays with the hand that's dealt to him.

"My role is to handle 25 guys I've been given on this staff,'' Matheny said. "You look at it as change. You look at it as adversity. Whatever it is, you try not to let those distractions from getting in the way of us moving forward.''

So the Cardinals, who lost perhaps Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina for the season, go into these final two months with A.J. Pierznyski as their starting catcher. The rotation suddenly consists of ace Adam Wainwright, Lackey, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Masterson. And the bullpen remains untouched.

Unfortunately, so does the offense, now down one weapon.

If the Cardinals reach the playoffs, they feel like they might be better equipped than a year ago, when they won the pennant and lost to the Red Sox in the World Series.

They have big-game pitchers in Wainwright and Lackey, who together have made 19 postseason starts. Masterson was a 2013 All-Star. And Lynn has seven games of World Series experience.

It sets up nicely for any short postseason series.

"I don't want to be presumptuous,'' Mozeliak said, "we just want to get there. That's how we approach it. But when you look at adding depth that we did in the rotation, it certainly allows you to believe if we were in a short series, it would work.

"We have a veteran presence.

"I think it will help this club in the end.''

Lackey, 36, who insists he will honor the unique clause in his contract that pays him just $500,000 in 2015, says he can't wait to pitch in October again. He even exchanged a little trash-taking with former teammate Jon Lester, who was traded Thursday to the Oakland A's, hoping they can meet again in October.

Who knew that just nine months after being on a duck boat parade in Boston, Lester and Lackey would be on two different teams, with the Red Sox sitting in last place in the AL East?

"It was kind of crazy,'' Lackey said, "how quickly it went in the other direction.''

Lackey won't have to wait long to reminisce with the rest his former teammates. The Red Sox have a three-game series beginning Tuesday in St. Louis. Yet, the Cardinals made sure Lackey won't be facing them, scheduled his next start Sunday against the Milwaukee Brewers.

"You always take in consideration pitching against his former team,'' Matheny said. "Not that it's a hindrance, but we have an opportunity to get him in there as quick as we can, get him acclimated to this stadium, this staff, and this fan base. I think it's a good decision.''

Lackey, 35, actually is looking forward to simply being in the National League for the first time in his career, facing the inferior lineups, without a DH.

"I'd rather face a pitcher,'' Lackey said, "than David Ortiz.''

Pierznyski, who caught Lackey in 18 starts this season with the Red Sox, predicts greatness. He's not the same pitcher from his Los Angeles Angels' days, 11-7 with a 3.60 ERA, but he can still be a No. 2 or No. 3 starter. He may be a solid starter during the regular season, but he has proven to be a star in the postseason, winning the decision Game 6 in last year's World Series.

"He wants that ball,'' Pierznyski says. "He's not afraid of the moment.''

Mozeliak, as it turns out, isn't either.

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