This Cardinals team is like a boomerang. We keep throwing their season out as over, but they keep coming right back in staying relevant and in the hunt for that last wild card spot.
Now, in truth, it takes a village to win the wild card, because the Reds and most notably the Padres (16-24 since July 26, when they had a six game lead for that spot) have done their part in losing games against teams that you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to lose against. That allowed the Cardinals to make the most of their games against Cincy recently (four of six wins over the past two series) and gives them a chance to make this weekend against the Padres memorable for more than just the 2011 reunion.
(Speaking of that reunion, Adam Wainwright goes tonight. That would put him on the right rest to pitch Saturday with those guys in town, but there’s an off day so typically he’d go Sunday. I bet they flip him and J.A. Happ, so that Happ goes Sunday. After all, it worked well when he pitched with the 2006 team in attendance.)
Tara Nichols and I talked last night on Gateway to Baseball Heaven and neither of us can quite figure out what this team is doing and, honestly, how we should feel about it. On the one hand, yes, they are a game out of the playoffs and you really never know what can happen there. Would you be shocked if the Cardinals beat the Dodgers in October behind Waino, even if Max Scherzer was the other starter? On the other hand, they are 28-40 against teams over .500 (7-6 since the end of August, still not overly exciting) and have a deficit of 20 runs in run differential. If the Padres had played .500 ball over this span, St. Louis would be five games out with 20 to play and we wouldn’t be giving more than a passing glance at the standings, needing a sweep of the Padres this weekend to be even within shouting distance in the last two weeks. The Cardinals also might find themselves eliminated from the division race at what has to be the earliest date in a long, long time this week, which isn’t a sign of greatness.
That said, it’s a team weighed down somewhat by June, which is the only month where they were at least .500 (September is 6-6 so far). If any one of the three bullpen debacles against Pittsburgh and Milwaukee go the way of the Cardinals, they are tied with the Padres and Reds. All three? They’d be two games up and in the driver’s seat. There’s reason to believe that the current iteration of the Cardinals is better than their overall record. They are 29-23 since the All-Star Break and while that’s not setting the world on fire, it does work out to a 90-win pace for the entire season. With San Diego having a remarkably tough schedule the rest of the way–none of their opponents are under .500, they play the Giants and Dodgers 13 times and the NL West leading Braves three full games and a resumption of a game from July 21 that has them leading in the bottom of the fifth (it was the second game of a double header)–the Reds are probably the team to focus on the rest of the way, especially since they have Pittsburgh nine times in their last 18. Are the Cardinals better than the Reds? It’s at least a debatable proposition.
I can’t say that I’m still overly optimistic about their odds, given that they have seven games with the Cubs left and it would be just like this 2021 team to look so good, perhaps even have a wild card spot in hand, only to lose two winnable games against a decimated Cubs team and go home for the winter. There’s a lot that still has to go right these next three weeks. However, they are still playing games that mean something this late in the season and that’s something, more than we expected when they couldn’t find their way over .500. It’s better than nothing!
Thursday (2-1 win vs. Los Angeles)
Hero: Andrew Knizner. I debated between him and Tyler O’Neill, given O’Neill’s homer was the tiebreaker, but Knizner went two for three and drove in the first run of the game. It was his first multi-hit game since July 23. The extra playing time he’s received hasn’t necessarily translated into hits–he’s three for 14 in September–but it is still good experience.
Goat: Tommy Edman. Edman wasn’t the only one with no hits as the team only mustered five, but that leadoff man tiebreaker comes into play. Plus Edman left three men on, which is hard to do when there aren’t a lot of baserunners.
Notes: As noted, big home run by Tyler O’Neill, his second in as many days….Alex Reyes got his first real taste of his new role, throwing two innings in the middle of the game and looking pretty good while doing it. After his appearance in the Reds series, he needs 16 innings in the last 20 games to reach 80, which became the new “yeah he can start in 2021 if he gets there” level a month or so back. Still going to be tough to get there if the starters keep going five or six innings, but he’ll probably have chances in the Jake Woodford or Miles Mikolas starts….the rest of the bullpen was awesome as well, as the Dodgers got only a walk over the last three innings.
Friday (4-2 loss vs. Cincinnati)
Hero: Yadier Molina. Two hits including a game-tying two-run homer in the fourth that had Yadi really fired up. Too bad it didn’t fire up the rest of the bats as Tyler Mahle and three relievers limited the club to three non-Molina hits.
Goat: T.J. McFarland. McFarland had a 18 inning or so scoreless streak going so eventually it was going to be snapped. Unfortunately his bad night came in the ninth inning of a tied game against another wild card competitor. Two runs on two hits and a sacrifice fly. If Harrison Bader makes a better throw, perhaps Jose Barrero doesn’t go to third on his RBI double and can’t come in on the sac fly, but really one run was more than the Cards could get together anyway.
Notes: I continue to give my Meet Me at Musial co-host Allen Medlock credit for trusting in Jon Lester. Lester turned in another very strong performance in this one, going seven innings and giving up two solo homers. He walked four, which is probably some of him picking his battles, but allowed only one hit that didn’t leave the yard….Nolan Arenado walked ahead of Molina and scored a run but admitted after the game he just wasn’t getting the job done. That would change.
Saturday (6-4 win vs. Cincinnati)
Hero: Nolan Arenado. Arenado tripled to bring in a run and cut the Reds lead to 4-3, but he saved his best moment for last, blasting a tiebreaking two-run homer that got him a curtain call for the dramatics. Love a guy that knows he needs to do more and then goes out and does it!
Goat: Miles Mikolas. It wasn’t the worst outing, but allowing four runs in five innings is less than ideal in a game like this. Mikolas was tagged for two homers in a four run third. Other than that, he was fairly solid but all the innings count.
Notes: When you get the good Genesis Cabrera–and, to be fair, that’s a majority of the time–it’s a sight to behold. With plenty of rest due to a nail issue this week, Cabrera went two innings and allowed no hits. He only struck out one, which is a bit of a surprise, but you like those zeros….after the whole “Reyes will be in a new role” bit, he wound up pitching the eighth inning. I guess technically that is a new role as well but not what you’d think after Thursday. However, he threw a scoreless inning with just one walk in the mix….Dylan Carlson had two hits and drove in Arenado after his triple. Carlson’s season’s not been what we all hoped for but he’s been a good contributor this year….Paul DeJong, playing all weekend while Edmundo Sosa dealt with a wrist issue, had two hits including a home run. You’d like to think he found something but he went 0-4 Friday and 0-2 Sunday.
Sunday (2-0 win vs. Cincinnati)
Hero: Nolan Arenado. Two at bats, two two-run homers. After finishing up Saturday with one, Arenado hit another in the first inning on Sunday. Somehow that was enough for the win.
Goat: Harrison Bader. 0-3 with two strikeouts.
Notes: After his last couple of starts, I was afraid J.A. Happ had run out of Cardinal magic and was reverting to form. Thankfully he at least staved that off for another outing, going 5.1 scoreless in this one, allowing just two hits….the bullpen again came through, getting six of their 11 outs by strikeout. The Reds were able to get a couple of doubles in the late innings but the men would be left stranded….Tyler O’Neill singled and Arenado homered in the first. The only other Cardinal hit was a Tommy Edman single in the sixth. Paul Goldschmidt drew the only walk. Thank goodness the pitching was on point!