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For the St. Louis Cardinals, a fitting end to an oftentimes exasperating regular season

The perfect ending to an oftentimes exasperating regular season.

Brian Kersey

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. During the Hot Stove that followed the St. Louis Cardinals’ 97-win National League pennant winning 2013 season, general manager John Mozeliak made the team better. At least on paper. Of course the reality is that no team has 97 wins worth of talent on paper, let alone 98 or more. In truth, 2013 probably should have tipped us all off to this reality.

The home stretch of the Cards’ 2013 regular season combined with a World Series trip to whitewash the dogfight that was the Central division race. On Labor Day, the Pirates led the Cardinals by a game in the Central standings. It was by way of a .704 September winning percentage—which outpaced even the 2011 Cardinals’ miracle run winning percentage of .692, mind you—that St. Louis was able to distance itself from Pittsburgh in the division standings. Also worth noting, the Pirates led the Cardinals 2-1 in the NLDS before St. Louis broke the hearts of Tortuga by reeling off two consecutive wins to advance to the NLCS.

2013 was not easy; it was hard. Yet the perception of a division runaway took hold. And the expectation of another such club took root. But the month of April 2014 quickly dashed any notions of a runaway division champ juggernaut in the Mound City.

On May Day, the would-be St. Louis juggernaut sat at just 15-14, closer to the third-place Reds in the standings than the first-place Brewers, who set a blistering .690 winning pace with a 20-9 record in the season’s opening month. For a bit more context: losing April’s final two games actually dropped the Brew Crew’s eye-popping winning percentage. The Pirates (the division’s other 2013 NLDS qualifier) sat at just 10-18. The Central battle lines were redrawn; there was a new frontrunner.

But the Brewers were incapable of running away with the division.

The Cards won at a .556 clip in May, .519 in June, .542 in July, and .552 in August. Meanwhile, the Brewers limped along. May was a losing month (.464) followed by a blistering June (.646). After July 1 it was not so much downhill for the Brewers as falling off a cliff. Milwaukee went 9-16 (.360) in July and 13-14 (.481) in August. The freefall continued into September, when a St. Louis surge allowed the Cards to catch and then surpass the Brewers in the Central standings. A 7-14 (.333) September has not only seen the Pirates surpass the Brewers, but Milwaukee to sit on the cusp of postseason elimination. (A Giants win or a Brewers loss mathematically dashes Milwaukee’s October dreams.)

Since the end of April and through play on September 23, the Central’s top three clubs have posted the following records:

  • Milwaukee: 60-68 (.469)
  • St. Louis: 73-56 (.566)
  • Pittsburgh: 76-53 (.589)

The long slog to get to this point gave us every indication that winning the division wouldn’t be easy. Even if Milwaukee seemed intent to make it so, Pittsburgh made it clear that their group of swashbucklers were and are intent on making a second consecutive Cardinals division title difficult. The Cardinals’ magic number in regards to the Pirates has shank ever so slightly, if at all, throughout the month, thanks to a 15-6 (.714) September that has been a bit better than the Cards’ 15-7 (.682). Over the last ten games, Pittsburgh has been even hotter, going 8-2 to the Redbirds’ 7-3.

The Cardinals’ magic number to win the Central sits at four as the two teams enter play today, September 24. Pittsburgh plays the Braves tonight; St. Louis the Cubs. The Pirates will play another game in Atlanta on Thursday before flying to Cincinnati for their season’s final series, a three-game set against the Reds. After Wednesday’s game at Wrigley, the Cards will travel to Arizona, for a three-game set against the lowly Diamondbacks.

The Cardinals must win all four of their remaining games to ensure the Pirates are eliminated from contention for the Central crown. This and the Pirates’ stubbornly excellent play have me pondering doomsday scenarios. There’s the possibility of an outright collapse, which would allow Pittsburgh to win the division and relegate the Cards to the brutish wild-card play-in game. Also possible, if the Cards go 3-1 and the Pirates don’t lose any of their remaining five contests over the next five days or St. Louis finishes 2-2 with Pittsburgh losing just once, a Central division tiebreaker at Busch Stadium (because the Cardinals bested the Pirates in the clubs’ regular-season series). Given the slog that the 2014 season has been, neither of these eventualities would surprise me. Now it’s time to hunker down and cheer the Cardinals while watching the scoreboard updates from Atlanta and Cincinnati. Because it looks like the Cards will need some help to cross the division race finish line in sole possession of first place.