Riddle me this. What bird is flying north for the winter? That would be the Cardinals, who are moving up the standings and now sit a full game ahead of the Padres and a game and a half ahead of the Reds for the second wild card.
I’m not trying to be a joker about this, but it’s almost unbelievable that this team that didn’t get fully clear of .500 until August 11th would now, if the season ended today, be headed to Los Angeles with everyone truly believing that Cardinal Devil Magic (TM) was alive and well and ready to take its vengeance on the Dodgers as has happened a few times in recent postseasons.
It’s easy to say that the Cardinals are playing their best baseball of the season at the right time and it’s not inaccurate to make that statement. After their win last night against the Mets, the Cards have won five in a row for only the third time this season and have pushed their record well out of the .500 orbit, now sitting seven games clear. I think it’s more that the offense has clicked rather than everything has taken a step up. In fact, the pitching has been a little shaky over the last couple of days, leading to a bit of a two-faced situation, but the offense has papered over that with significant gains. Scoring at least seven runs in each game in the dark night of New York will do that for you.
Last night was a little more stressful than you’d expect for a game that started out with St. Louis sending nine men to the plate in the first inning and never having a lead less than three runs. Much like a cat will play with a mouse, it was almost like the Cardinals were toying with the Mets, giving them hope and then yanking it away. For instance, in the fifth with St. Louis leading 6-2, the Mets led off the inning with two singles. Jonathan Villar bunted and almost beat it out but Yadier Molina‘s arm remains undefeated. Still, runners on second and third, one out, surely the Mets can do something. However (and we’ve seen this many times with the Cardinals as well, so no aspersions cast here), Francisco Lindor struck out and Javy Baez hit a deep fly to center field that Harrison Bader caught at the track.
Just two innings later, after a Kevin Pillar homer in the sixth and then home runs by Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado in the top of the seventh had remade the score to 8-3, Andrew Miller allowed a triple, a single, and a swinging bunt in the three batters he faced to make it 8-4 with two on. Mike Shildt, not risking a game like this getting away, went to the bullpen and did a double switch, bringing in T.J. McFarland and putting Lars Nootbaar out in right. Dylan Carlson had made the last out and there was a desire, with a lack of available bullpen arms being a bane for the manager, to make sure McFarland could go more than one inning. However, it’s interesting that this is the second night in a row Carlson has been the recipient of such a move. Probably coincidence, but maybe something to keep an eye on.
Anyway, McFarland used everything in his utility belt to get three outs but the most important tool was Mr. Nootbaar. McFarland got the first two outs then gave up a long drive to Pete Alonso. It looked like it was going to get right over the fence and suddenly make this an 8-7 game, but Lars put on his cape, timed his leap just right, and brought down the ball in his glove. The Cardinals put up four more against a rogue’s gallery of relievers–well, I guess really just Heath Hembree–and strolled out of that cave with an 11-4 win and more security in their postseason lives.
Offensively, though, it was a fun night. Every starter got a hit including Jon Lester, who doubled in the fourth with no outs after Bader had gone deep. That’s getting production from the bottom of the lineup right there. Lester also pitched six innings of pretty good baseball as well. He allowed three runs, though one of those was unearned due to an error by Edmundo Sosa, and struck out seven in six innings while walking no one. When you are staked to a 5-0 lead before you even take the mound, you definitely don’t want to see anyone walking like a penguin to first with a free pass.
For our Hero, we’ll go with Harrison Bader. Along with that home run, his two-out single in the first changed the dynamic of the game. If they only start the frame with three, it’s still something that you are concerned about. Five in the first, always Tony La Russa‘s favorite, gives you a lot more comfort.
We probably should give the Goat to Andrew Miller, given he didn’t get anyone out, but that didn’t really have much impact on the game. I’ll go ahead and give it to Yadier Molina, which is tough to do on Roberto Clemente day. Unlike last year, when he homered wearing 21, Molina went 1-5 in this one, stranding four and hitting into a double play. When you score 11 runs, though, people don’t worry about it much.
With an off day today, the Cardinals are in solid shape going into the last 17 of the games of the season. (As we continue to monitor streaks, they need only six wins in those 17 games to finish over .500 again, continuing that streak. Also, Matt Carpenter grounded out as a pinch-hitter last night, running his hitless streak to 0-31.) The Padres are going to come into Busch with a bit of desperation, knowing a series loss would be a real blow to their playoff hopes. The team we are seeing now should be able to compete with the Brewers, especially since Milwaukee is just positioning things for October with no real chance of changing their seeding. The Cards will have to be careful in the poison ivy of Wrigley, because the Cubs would love to throw a wrench in the works, but for the first time in a while, you can feel pretty good about this team.
That doesn’t mean that it’s smooth sailing or anything and there are plenty of ways that this doesn’t turn out well. (Though when the Pirates are helping you out, you start to wonder if it is truly meant to be.) However, we are two and a half weeks from the end of the season and the Cardinals are still very relevant. That’s pretty good for what has been a down season by their standards. Let’s hope the bats come with them back to Busch!