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Cardinals squander big opportunity, rinse, repeat

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If the Cardinals find themselves sitting at home this October, they’ll likely have this past week to thank for it.

Atlanta Braves v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

And that’s what a lost week looks like.

To recap, at this exact point a week ago, the Cardinals were 7.5 back of the Cubs. Not a prime spot to challenge for the NL Central down the stretch but not implausible either. Not with ten games remaining on the schedule against the Cubs. More realistically, however, the Cardinals were a game out of the last wild card spot, staring up at assumed-pretender the Marlins, with a week of the Reds and Braves - two dead-last clubs - on the horizon. Everything seemed set to work itself out naturally, just as it had every year from 2011 on.

The Cardinals also entered August with a +89 run differential, the third best in the NL and fourth overall in MLB. And teams outscoring the competition at such a rate don’t stay home from the postseason. Going back to 2006 - ten seasons - 25 different teams have entered August with at least a +89 run differential and 22 (88%) played extra baseball. The only three exceptions (‘11 Red Sox, ‘10 Padres, ‘06 White Sox) all would have made the postseason in the current, two wild card format. This is skewed in the Cardinals’ favor because +89 is the baseline but you get the idea.

That the Cardinals were only seven games over .500 (56-49) with a run differential indicating they should be around 18 to 19 games over .500 has been a concern all year but the upcoming schedule was a good spot for this number to begin to correct itself. But the Reds and Braves - two teams today a combined 49 games under .500 and with a -251 run differential - outscored the Cardinals 37-19 and took each series. It could have been a six game sweep save for two one-run wins, the last one aided by a sterling pitching performance from Jaime Garcia. (And while we’re on the subject of numbers correcting themselves, two-and-a-half weeks ago the Cardinals had the worst record in the NL in one-run games and have since won 8 of 9.)

Make no mistake, Cincinnati is not a good baseball team, but heading into their series with the Cardinals they had won five straight series coming out of the All-Star break. And games at Great American Ballpark never feel like a gimme with it often playing like Coors-lite.

Atlanta, however, is unequivocally the worst team in baseball, and yet of their MLB-low 395 total runs, 13 came against Carlos Martinez and Adam Wainwright in just 11 total innings. Bad starts happen and Martinez and Wainwright had been very good going into each (Martinez had a 2.09 ERA in his previous 73.1 innings; 1.99 ERA in previous 40.2 for Wainwright), but losing big with possibly the staff’s two best pitchers on the mound against such an offensively-challenged team is a squandered opportunity. These were home games, too. As such, the Cardinals remain the only team in MLB with a winning record to have a losing record at home (26-32) and that’s by a long shot. The next worst team would be the Mets at 29-26.

Opportunities squandered might be what we remember about the 2016 Cardinals. They’ve been remarkably consistent in that regard. Seven times this season they’ve won at least three games in a row and six of those times they followed up the streak by losing at least two in a row. The only exception being when they won four in a row over the Braves and Brewers in the first week of the season.

The Cardinals now sit 11.5 back in the NL Central - a race which in ever practical sense is over. And yet because none of the other wild card contenders (I’m not counting Colorado just yet) have played good baseball lately either, the Cardinals remain just a game out of the last wild card spot. They still have ten games left with Cincinnati, including three beginning tonight at Busch.

Their +71 run differential is still sixth best in all of baseball. Doing the same exercise from earlier, 45 teams over the last ten seasons have had at least a +71 run differential on the morning of August 8 and 43 would have played at least one extra game under the current format (the two exceptions: ‘09 Rays, ‘10 Cardinals). If pythagorean wins are your thing, the Cardinals are still in fine shape.

So we know there’s still a very good chance the Cardinals make the postseason. And we also know that 2006 and 2011 each felt exactly like this at times during those seasons, if not more so. But the Cardinals were lucky to even qualify for the postseason those two years and they might not get that luxury this year. If that’s the case there will be numerous things to point at as the “where it all went wrong” moment, but it’s hard to imagine anything topping last week.