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The Cardinals, the Reds, and the moment the season finally changes

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With the Astros and the Reds back to back the Cardinals are uniquely positioned to do the sports movie montage thing in back-to-back series—go from a team that Just Can't Get It Together to a team that looks great against tackling dummies and bonding over pizza in late-night bull sessions just before playing the tough, no-nonsense team that humiliated them in the first five minutes, before the credits rolled.

Whether the montage leads, as it's supposed to, to a scene where the team's weakest link overcomes his fears and wins the big game remains an open question—and to be honest, without the perfectly cast Tyler Greene I'm not sure who would play that role. I'm just glad that we'll see, by Monday, something other than the Reds' omnipresent seven-game-lead in the division standings.

We know these Cardinals, by now—they're too competent to be ragtag misfits, and not quite good enough to be the brilliant squad of mercenaries who needs to be shocked somehow into caring. They're a terrible montage team, in general.

Really, if this were a movie we'd probably be rooting for the Reds, Johnny Cueto's continued presence aside. Their dismissal of the Cardinals' most recent rally has been buoyed by the performance of Scott Rolen, left for dead this time last month, and Ryan Ludwick, left for dead this time last year. They've weathered the loss of their widely respected superstar and assembled a strong bullpen to hold down the leads they get. The Reds just look more like the team of misfits that's supposed to make a late, successful Wild Card run.

I think this is just another way of getting back to the run differential question that's dogged the Cardinals all year: Somehow, these consummate professionals—postseason-tested, emotionally even, man-stewed—find themselves seven games behind the underdogs.

I'm not able or especially willing to offer explanations for that, except that in general a team's tone or temper isn't very strongly correlated with its ability to win baseball games. But it's made this summer, in which the Cardinals have again and again tried to fight their way back into NL Central contention, a strange rooting proposition.

What happens over the weekend, though, whatever it is, is likely to suggest we've begun the movie in the wrong place. If the Cardinals win out, they'll be in contention and we'll have to adjust all our fraud-related memes to account for their September liveliness. If they lose, but remain in Wild Card contention, this will be the moment the pursuit of the Reds in the regular season officially ends and we can spend the rest of the season nursing a grudge in the hopes that there's a postseason matchup, at which point a season's worth of mild disappointments will become irrelevant.

This is the part of the season—the end of a long summer—where things finally change. Even if the Cardinals win and lose in the same way, today and Saturday and Sunday, it won't be the same way anymore.