Sep 16, 2019; St. Louis, MO, USA; The moon rises over the St. Louis Cardinals World Series Champions flags after a game against the Washington Nationals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
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And here we are.
The six month marathon of the regular season draws to a close. As advertised, the Cardinals enter the final weekend against the Cubs with the division on the line. But with a twist, as it’s not the Cubs the Cardinals are trying to fight off. The Milwaukee Brewers, winners of 18 of their last 20 games, have pulled within a single game of the NL Central lead.
Additionally, the Brewers also trail the Nationals by just 1 game, bunching all 3 potential Wild Card participants together.
All options are still on the table.
The weekend will determine what is meant to be.
The red hot, Yelich-less Brewers are giving me anxiety. Let’s be honest, the Cardinals are a respectable 12-8 over their last 20 games. They have 15 wins in September, a .600 W-L%, and the chance to match their single-month high of 18 wins. It’s been a solid month.
It’s just hard to hold your ground when the trailing team stops losing.
Do not call this a collapse by the Cardinals. Yes, they were — and still are — in the driver’s seat. They have posted one of their better months. Unfortunately, 2 ill-timed losses in Arizona and the Brewers going 20-4 in September alters the perception. All credit goes to the Brewers and their .833 W-L% for making this a race.
I thought there was no way the Brewers would beat both Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo in Cincinnati, but alas, Josh VanMeter can’t catch a ball that went into his glove and the Brewers crushed my dreams.
This weekend the Brewers close out the season against the Rockies at Coors Field. The MillerCoors series will be closely watched by Anheuser-Busch country.
I’m done predicting Brewers losses, I’ve been hurt too many times. I’ll just give you the ugly pitching matchups and we can pray that Coors Field will be the factor that finally disrupts Milwaukee’s MLB leading 2.75 TEAM ERA for the month of September.
MIL – Davies (10-7, 3.61 ERA)
COL – Senzatela (10-11, 6.90 ERA)
MIL – TBD
COL – Gonzalez (2-6, 5.68 ERA)
MIL – TBD
COL – Hoffman (2-6, 6.78 ERA)
I believe Craig Counsell intends to bullpen his way through the final 2 games.
Cubs Come to Town
Your first instinct might be that the Cubs will be looking to rise up and avenge the 4-game sweep they suffered at Wrigley Field last week.
Then consider that the injured Bryant and Baez have been shut down officially, and Anthony Rizzo is unlikely to keep risking further injury on a bad ankle now that the Cubs have been eliminated from the postseason.
This is what Jordan Bastian of MLB.com reports:
Maddon noted that he will check in with first baseman Anthony Rizzo and second baseman Ben Zobrist, but there is a strong chance they will not play in the series in St. Louis. The manager said he will have a similar chat with outfielder Jason Heyward as well.
Add to it that the Cubs are also ending the seasons of Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks — their best starting pitchers — and electing to pitch Alec Mills and a bullpen game instead.
The Cubs have lost 9 straight games, having just been swept by the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that had been a doormat for everyone else in the 2nd half.
They certainly aren’t as daunting as they were, even a week ago.
That doesn’t mean they can be taken lightly, no team can. But there is a clear opportunity for the Cardinals to win or sweep this series.
Here’s how the pitching lines up.
CHC – Alec Mills (1-0, 2.90 ERA)
STL – Dakota Hudson (16-7, 3.45 ERA)
CHC – Cole Hamels (7-7, 3.92 ERA)
STL – Adam Wainwright (14-9, 3.98 ERA)
CHC – TBD (Reported Bullpen Game possible)
STL – TBD
The team altered the originally announced plans to start Wainwright on Sunday, moving him up — though he will still be on regular rest. No offense to Miles Mikolas, but Hudson and Wainwright provide the better chance to win right now, and the Cardinals are pushing to win both Friday and Saturday, with hopes of at least one Milwaukee loss to wrap up the division.
That leaves Sunday’s TBD containing some variables, which I will discuss in the next section.
Let’s start with the basic math.
|Cardinals Go:||Brewers Go:||Result|
|3-0||Doesn't Matter||STL Wins NLC|
|2-1||2-1/1-2/0-3||STL Wins NLC|
|1-2||3-0||MIL Wins NLC|
|1-2||1-2/0-3||STL Wins NLC|
|0-3||0-3||STL Wins NLC|
|0-3||2-1/3-0||MIL Wins NLC|
The math still favors the Cardinals. As long as they take care of business and win, they can preserve their lead, or at least force a tiebreaker. Because the Cardinals went 10-9 against the Brewers this year, the tiebreaking game for the NL Central would be at Busch Stadium.
Also worth keeping an eye on is the Nationals series against Cleveland. The Cardinals must only match the Nationals this weekend to finish with identical records and have the rights to host a potential Wild Card game, due to going 5-2 against Washington this year. This is definitely secondary scoreboard watching, as the greater task is beating the Cubs, securing the Central, and avoiding the Wild Card game entirely.
Now, let’s talk about Sunday’s TBD. I like that the Cardinals are going with Wainwright, on Saturday, in a game that is guaranteed to mean something. He has been great in September and money at home all season. I love the push to win those first 2 games.
What happens after that will be interesting, as Flaherty and Mikolas will both be on standby for Sunday.
If the Cardinals are tied for the division lead or (heaven forbid) trailing going into Sunday’s game, they will absolutely start Flaherty and gun for the division win or to force a tiebreaker. Mikolas would then pitch Monday against the Brewers, if needed. This is the “back against the wall” scenario.
If they are able to clinch on Saturday, the best-case scenario, they likely throw Mikolas on Sunday so that he gets work prior to the NLDS and doesn’t go nearly 2 weeks without pitching.
But there is a twist. What if they are 1 game ahead on Sunday, needing a win or a Brewers loss to clinch, but guaranteed of nothing worse than a Game 163?
Do they start taking the Wild Card game into consideration? Yes, reaching that game is part the worst-case scenario, but it’s like the old cliche, “hope for the best, expect the worst.” They have to at least have a plan.
Michael Wacha was the starter than lined up for Tuesday’s Wild Card game on regular rest, but his shoulder strain likely rules him out and leaves them with no clear option should Mikolas and Flaherty be used on Sunday and Monday.
So, if there is a 1 game lead on Sunday, do they pitch Mikolas, looking to hold? They know they have Flaherty ready for a play-in, if needed, and that’s great. But they also would have to consider the worst-case, where they end up with Hudson on short rest against Scherzer in a Wild Card game.
I wonder if they would consider rolling the dice with Daniel Ponce de Leon, with a 1 game lead, on Sunday. They know the Cubs are likely throwing a bullpen game, so the matchup is probably in Ponce’s favor. Throwing Ponce would open up Flaherty for a (potential) Game 163 and Mikolas in a (potential) Wild Card game. Or Ponce pitches you to the division win.
Stranger things have happened, Tyler Lyons started and won the 159th and clinching gaming in 2015.
The aggressive mind says to push hardest to win the division, which would be Mikolas on Sunday with a 1 game lead. But the cautious mind says to be ready to win all the way through, because baseball can be weird.
There is a chance that Ponce de Leon is pitching important innings somewhere between Sunday and Tuesday.
The Cardinals have built a strong foundation with their fundamental play. Their defense is strong, their baserunning is smart, and their starting pitching has been rolling.
The games before them are winnable, they just have to execute. Right now, we need to have faith in the Cardinals to win and faith in the Rockies to spoil. Other than a lot of anxiety and heartburn, we don’t know for sure what is coming this weekend.
Or what will be next for the Cardinals, following Sunday’s game.