One of the most marvelous things about the Cardinals winning the division by such a slim margin is that we can look back on any big moment of success throughout the season and point to it as a hinge upon which the Cardinals' season swung.
"Ah, remember back in April when Lance Lynn got the only extra-base hit of his career? An RBI that turned out to be the margin of victory over the Nationals? Ah, that was good times. I shudder to think what might have been had he not done that, but I don't need to! He did! They won the game and the division!" And you can laugh softly to yourself into the early October evening with your cigar and your Armagnac.
Or you might turn to your loved one and softly whisper "oh my dear, do you recall that Greg Garcia walk-off hit-by-pitch in May? Little did we know then that the ball would impart not just a bruise, but a crown upon our Cardinals!" I mean, you might.
There were walk-off hits, some on back to back nights, and there were sterling pitching performances in tight spots, defensive gems and fortuitous bounces, pinch hits and even a few bunts that worked, and we can happily think back on any of them in the first 89 victories of the year and consider that they can now be seen as crucial to the whole of the season.
That sort of thing is fun to reminisce upon, certainly more fun than the second-guessing and delayed cursing of every one of them that got away from the Pirates that their fans would be doing now, were they not steeling themselves for the looming crucible of a wildcard game against Madison Bumgarner. But that sort of thing doesn't make a good story, and it ignores that the sequencing of the season is an integral part of what we remember when we draw its arc in our memories.
So I want to pick a moment, or a set of moments, that can most reasonably be considered the precipice on which the 2014 NL Central race was balanced. Had the thing leaned just the smallest amount toward Pittsburgh at that moment, and there would have been a tie-breaker game last night, or worse, the Cardinals could have plummeted toward the gaping maw of the aforementioned wildcard game. Truly shudder-inducing, that. The precipice, of course, was the three game series against the Pirates at Busch Stadium during the first three days of September. The Cardinals swept the Bucs, took possession of first place for the first time all year, and stretched their lead over Pittsburgh from 2.0 to 5.0 games.
Each of the three games was decided late. Game one, a 5-4 affair, featured a 14.6% win expectancy for the Cardinals in the seventh inning. Game two's 6-4 win was the easiest victory, yet the Cardinals led by just a run as late as the seventh, and the only run scored in game three occurred on a walk-off hit.
Revisiting the games in full is fun, and the links above will lead you to each game's Viva El Birdos recap, but that's not what I'd like to do here. If the games won the division, let's look at the single most important moment in each game, the edge of the edge on which Cardinal hopes stood.
Game one, started by Lance Lynn and Gerrit Cole, featured the lowest win expectancy of the trio for the Cardinals. After Daniel Descalso led off the bottom of the seventh with a strikeout, the Redbirds probability of winning stood at 16.1%, but just two hitters later, they were slight favorites after Pete Kozma's single was followed by Kolten Wong's .341 WPA game-tying homer off of Cole. Read about WPA and WE here if you need a refresher. That win expectancy should be thought of not just adding to the odds of the Cardinals putting a W in the ledger, but also of taking one away from the Pirates. That's what made the series so important. As Ben Humphrey wrote back on September 9, it was the head to head matches that fueled the Cardinals' standings lead. The Cardinals took over first place in the division that day, and never relinquished it, and so few swings of the bat had such an impact on the Cardinals' season as Kolten Wong's blast. Here it is:
Game two, which saw Adam Wainwright and Jeff Locke start, didn't have a single play with nearly the impact of Wong's homerun, but Peter Bourjos managed the highest WPA moment with his go ahead RBI single in the fourth inning, and the speedster scored two runs of his own, covering the spread of the final score, and putting up a total .213 WPA in the game. I present a trio of moments, all involving Gorgeous Bourjos.
Down 1-0 in the second, Daniel Descalo walked to lead off the inning. Peter Bourjos followed with a single, pushing Descalso to 3rd. A passed ball moved Bourjos to 2nd, and an Adam Wainwright groundout scored Descalso and brought Bourjos to 3rd base, for Matt Carpenter. Of the group of plays, Bourjos' single had the highest WPA at .066. Here he is scoring the first go-ahead run of the game for the Cardinals:
The Pirates tied the game back up in the third, and then in the fourth, this hit, worth .155 WPA, drove in Yadier Molina and opened up a lead that the Cardinals never lost.
And the next at-bat put the game out of reach.
Game three featured scoreless work from Shelby Miller and Edinson Volquez. It was a heated affair after Volquez hit Matt Holliday, and Shelby responded by throwing behind Andrew McCutchen, leading to chippy exchanges between the dugouts. The bullpens continued to keep the contentious game scoreless, and when Mark Melancon struck out Matt Adams and Jhonny Peralta to start the bottom of the 9th, the game appeared destined for extras. But not so, my friends! Yadi walked, Jon Jay singled, and Peter Bourjos stepped to the plate. His single would be worth .394 WPA, and was the nudge that put the division just beyond where the Pirates would ultimately be able to reach.
I was thrilled when Aroldis Chapman ended the division chase on our behalf, but I felt a little cheated that the Cardinals didn't have the opportunity for some dramatic victory of their own in which they finally won the prize. I think it's at least a little logical and a lot pretty to canonize this as the regular season's jewel in that missing moment's stead: