All season, we’ve said that the road to the division goes through Chicago. Even when the schedule came out last August, these four games (and the three next week at Busch) loomed large. Now, they are here.
The Cardinals go into Wrigley in better shape than many thought, especially a few days ago. With a win over Max Scherzer and the Nationals on Wednesday afternoon, coupled with both the Cubs and Brewers losing last night, St. Louis finds itself three clear with 10 to play. The magic number is eight, a number that could shrink rapidly with some wins this weekend. FanGraphs this morning has the Cards with a 74% chance to take the division and a 92.4% chance to make the playoffs. You have to like those odds, especially after the last three seasons of spending September futilely chasing down a wild card slot. While the Cubs do have seven left with the Cardinals, they’d have to win 5 of them just to tie St. Louis if the Cards can match what they do in the three games the two teams don’t play. (Which might be tough as the Cards have Arizona and the Cubs Pittsburgh, but that’s another issue.)
In fact, if the Cardinals swept the four games, they would eliminate the Cubs from divisional contention. Even though the Cardinals have fashioned two four game sweeps this season (and almost had a third against the Nationals in April-May), they aren’t going to win four straight at Wrigley Field. I would love to be wrong, but let’s take a look at some of the numbers. (If you listened to Chirps this week, you already know what’s coming up.)
Since 1996, the Cardinals are 16-29 in Wrigley Field in the month of September. That’s a .356 winning percentage, which is equivalent to a 58 win team. That’s pretty close to what the Marlins have done on the season, for comparison. That’s since Tony La Russa came to St. Louis and ushered in what has been the longest sustained successful run in Cardinal history. The Cardinal teams in this period have been, on the whole, very good, yet they’ve struggled in Wrigley Field. (In fact, they’ve struggled against the Cubs period, putting up a 44-50 mark in September when you count the home games as well.)
And remember, during much of that period the Cubs weren’t very good. When you narrow your scope to 2015-2018, this era of Cub ascendance, you get a 3-11 mark in Wrigley (.214). That’s 35 wins over a 162 game season. There’s no real comparison for that–even the ’62 Mets were better than that. Of course, that’s also just 14 games, but as you can see, it’s been an issue.
All of that is disturbing and worrisome. The Cubs have also been very good this season defending their home turf, with a dominating 51-26 mark in front of the ivy. However, they just lost two of three to the Reds at home, which is encouraging. They also lost two of three against the Brewers at home as the calendar turned from August to September, so they aren’t invincible there even if, up to this point, the Cardinals haven’t watched them fly the L in person yet.
Alex and I went through this on Chirps, but when you take away the Cub mystique and look at the two teams, it’s not really a fluke that the Cardinals are winning the division. The pitching staff edge, both starters and relievers, goes to St. Louis. The Cubs do have the better offense, but that’s going to be hampered this weekend with the losses of Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo. Obviously they still have firepower–ask the Pirates if they’ve recovered from that historic shelling from last weekend–but their strength is not as strong while their weaknesses are still there.
Again, this is a tough slog for the Cardinals. If they can get a split, they have to be happy with that. It seems unlikely they’ll get help from the Padres (today) or Pirates (the rest of the weekend) in beating the Brewers. (Speaking of the Pirates, they have lost five in a row and you almost wonder if they’ll win again this season. They have Seattle today, which might be their best chance, then the Brewers and Cubs before finishing with the Reds. At least those last two will be at home in front of their adoring fans, all 10,000 of them.) Help isn’t likely to be coming, though sometimes it comes from unexpected places. However, the best thing about a three game lead is that you don’t really need help. It’s nice, it makes things easier, but if you win your games, what other teams do doesn’t matter.
When you look at the pitching matchups for this series, there’s not an lopsided one in the bunch. Jack Flaherty against anyone is usually a huge edge for the Cardinals, but he’s up against Kyle Hendricks, whom the Cardinals haven’t been able to solve at all this season (and beyond, really). The Cardinals aren’t the only ones, of course, and Hendricks has given up a total of four runs (three earned) in September after allowing six in his last August start. He threw his Maddux at the Cards on May 3, which was the beginning of the spiral for this team, and beat them again June 9 with seven innings of one-run ball. He caught them again at the end of July with seven scoreless innings. He has yet to walk a St. Louis batter in 2019. You have to go back to July of 2018 for a start that could be considered bad against the Redbirds and even that one he just allowed three runs, though it was in 4.2 innings. So that’s a challenge that the Cardinals are going to have to meet.
Friday afternoon, Michael Wacha goes up against Jose Quintana. This one you might think ticks toward the Cubs, and maybe it does, but Wacha has been pitching very well of late. He’s given up just two runs in September and has a 2.56 ERA since getting smashed by the Dodgers in LA. Part of the reason for the good numbers has been Mike Shildt’s willingness to pull him early, but he’s also had better results. In fact, I don’t think it’s an automatic thing to pull him after five anymore. Now, if there’s a situation you need to hit for him because there’s a scoring opportunity, you definitely don’t hesitate, but if he’s going well, he could probably get into the sixth or seventh. He’s only once gone more than five innings in this stretch and that was seven innings against the Reds in one of the doubleheaders. I’m not sure Shildt’s trigger finger has to be quite as itchy, though a game in Wrigley might not be the place to change that strategy.
Saturday you get Dakota Hudson, who has been right there with Jack Flaherty in great pitching results in the second half. You figure that’s a Cardinal win except for the fact that Cole Hamels is on the other side of the equation. The only two times the Cards saw Hamels this year was within about a week span in June, when the offense was really struggling, and he threw 15 innings in those two games and allowed only an unearned run. That said, September has been less than kind to him, as he’s not gotten through the fifth in any of his three starts and has a 6.55 ERA to show for it, striking out 13 but walking 11. If that Hamels shows up, you have to like the Cards’ odds in this one.
The series wraps Sunday afternoon with Miles Mikolas going against Yu Darvish. Mikolas has struggled on the road (and indeed overall this season, bringing into question whether that extension really was a good idea) while Darvish has battled injuries much of the season. The Reds got to him Tuesday night for four runs in seven innings, but the three starts before that he’d allowed just a total of one run. The Cards saw him May 31 and June 30. Both times St. Louis won 2-1 with Darvish going six innings. It’d be a little surprising if they did it a third time, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
The Cards have the bullpen edge, like they had with the Nationals (though it didn’t really come into play much there), so if the starters can keep it close you feel good about their chances. Craig Kimbrel might return this weekend, might not, but he’s not the guaranteed lock he used to be anyway.
There’s drama a-plenty in this set of four games. These could be the last games Joe Maddon manages at Wrigley, at least as the home skipper. A Cardinal win (or even a split) could hasten what feels like a closing window on the idea of a Cubs dynasty. So much hangs in the balance as both teams keep one eye on whatever Milwaukee is doing. If you aren’t a part of either fanbase, watching this must be exciting and what baseball is all about. Being emotionally invested, however, means that there’s going to be a lot of people with an edge on them. However, if the Cardinals play the way they can, they’ll get their first wins of the season at that old ballpark. Which will go a long way to making sure their new ballpark has more than three games left in it this year.
Wednesday, September 11 (2-1 loss at Colorado)
Hero: Dexter Fowler. Two hits and two walks, plus he scored the only run.
Goat: Marcell Ozuna. 0-4 and four men left on.
Notes: Really, back-to-back 2-1 losses in Coors Field?…..Dakota Hudson pitched fairly well, but did walk five in six innings. Couple that with four hits and runs are going to score. The fact that he allowed just two at Coors has to be noted….John Gant allowed two hits in his 1/3 inning of work, but Tyler Webb bailed him out…..two hits for Paul DeJong.
Thursday, September 12 (10-3 win at Colorado)
Hero: Kolten Wong. Two hits, including a home run. Two runs. Two RBI. Deuces wild and it was a winning hand.
Goat: Paul DeJong. 0-4, though he did score a run.
Notes: Finally the bats break out, with Dexter Fowler and Wong leading off the game with longballs…..five total Cardinal home runs in this one, with Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader, and Rangel Ravelo joining in the fun….Miles Mikolas gave up three runs in five innings, which isn’t bad for Coors, I guess, but pretty indicative of his road season (5.80 road ERA).
Friday, Sepember 13 (10-0 win vs. Milwaukee)
Hero: Paul Goldschmidt. There are still games that you say, “Yeah, that’s why they got him.” A grand slam and a three-run homer did most of the damage here.
Goat: Marcell Ozuna. 0-3 with a walk.
Notes: They should have saved some of these runs for the rest of the weekend….Dexter Fowler walked three times…..Kolten Wong had three hits, two runs, and two RBI….Adam Wainwright threw six scoreless innings and tossed in a double at bat as well….the Cardinals drew seven walks, which is why they had 10 runs but only eight hits.
Saturday, September 14 (5-2 loss vs. Milwaukee)
Hero: Tommy Edman. Two hits, including a home run that started the scoring.
Goat: Paul Goldschmidt. 0-4 and left three men on base.
Notes: Once Jack Flaherty had a two run lead, I expected the game was over. Instead, Flaherty wound up giving up three in his six innings, his worst start of the second half. Which just tells you how dominant his second half has been. Still struck out 10 though….John Gant struck out the three batters he faced, which perhaps built some false confidence….Tyler Webb had an off night, allowing two runs and getting nobody out…..another two-hit night for Kolten Wong.
Sunday, September 15 (7-6 loss vs. Milwaukee)
Hero: Harrison Bader. Two home runs, including a go-ahead shot in the seventh that almost held up. Of course, there was that miscommunication with Dexter Fowler that led to an error and a run, but the two homers have to outweigh that.
Goat: John Gant. Two run lead, ninth inning. To walk three of the four men you face is unacceptable. Granted, Mike Shildt probably should have gotten him after the second walk, but still. Gant’s regressing back to the mean after his strong start to the season.
Notes: Junior Fernandez almost got the Cards out of it, running the count to 1-2 on Ryan Braun before missing the strike zone two more times and winding up in a full count that Braun eventually took advantage of for the winning slam. It feels like Cardinal pitchers do that a ton, get ahead 1-2 or 0-2, then miss, miss, miss until they are forced to come at a batter….Tommy Edman hit a home run off of Josh Hader. Now that’s a sentence you never thought you’d read….there were a lot of bullpen machinations for the fact Carlos Martinez was unavailable due to his asthma/allergy issues.
Monday, September 16 (4-2 win vs. Washington)
Hero: Marcell Ozuna. Two-run homer in the first gave some padding against Stephen Strasberg, then his two-run double late broke the tie.
Goat: Harrison Bader. 0-4 with two strikeouts and two left on.
Notes: Solid work by Dakota Hudson, who gave up just two runs in seven innings to a strong team. Did walk two and strike out just one, however…..Mike Shildt warmed up Carlos Martinez and had him ready to start the ninth but let Andrew Miller get two outs there. Assume it was just precautionary (and Martinez did get the last out) but wonder if they didn’t want to overextend Martinez with his recent issues….Dexter Fowler went 0-2 but drew two walks and scored after both of them….two hits for Tommy Edman.
Tuesday, September 17 (6-2 loss vs. Washington)
Hero: Paul Goldschmidt. One hit, two walks. There wasn’t much to choose from.
Goat: Paul DeJong. 0-4 and a run scored because of a ball he hit, but that’s just because Trea Turner booted his grounder.
Notes: Honestly, the Cardinals would have done better to not swing at anything Patrick Corbin threw in the first few innings. Few were strikes but they couldn’t lay off that slider….the Cards got their other run when Jose Martinez struck out but Yan Gomes tried to get Harrison Bader stealing second. The ball went into center and Tommy Edman (who was on third) came in. So no RBI in this game at all for the Redbirds….three runs, six innings. At least Miles Mikolas gave a quality start again.
Wednesday, September 18 (5-1 win vs. Washington)
Hero: Adam Wainwright. Going up against perhaps this year’s Cy Young winner, he allowed only one unearned run in seven innings and that run came in his final frame. Wainwright occasionally lays an egg in big situations, but he can also step up and he did a great job of that yesterday.
Goat: Marcell Ozuna. Looks like Monday’s game was less the start of a hot streak and more an isolated case. 0-4, two strikeouts, three left on.
Notes: Tommy Edman came up big, hitting a home run to start the scoring (on a pitch that was not at all easy to hit) and driving in another run in the seventh to extend the game back out to two runs….Matt Wieters made his first appearance since being hurt at the end of August, pinch-hitting in the seventh against Max Scherzer. Not ideal, but Wieters made the best of it, smoking a two-run homer that ended Scherzer’s day and created the final margin….Carlos Martinez must be deemed fully healthy, as he got the last four outs in this one.