Is anyone else getting this vaguely familiar, forgotten feeling when they watch the Cardinals play over the past few weeks?
I think they call it hope.
Yes, the Cardinals are just five games over .500. But things feel different than they did before the All-Star Break. The team is more aggressive, strikeouts are down, the bullpen is offering stability, and the managerial decisions have felt much more calculated than in the past — with explanations of thought processes included, free of charge! The team has now won four series in a row, three of which were against postseason contenders. All the while, it feels like the squad doing so is mainly comprised of guys who started the year—or at least last year—in Memphis. The Cardinals have been fun to watch again.
FanGraphs’s playoff odds aren’t too high on the Cardinals’ chances, for obvious reasons. With five NL teams holding playoff odds greater than 50%, St. Louis’s 14.5% chances seem pretty slim. I find the raw numbers to be a bit misleading. Through the remainder of the season, the Cardinals will play 35 of their 47 games against teams in the hunt for at least a wildcard spot. They have the ability to directly control their fate; it’s not all playing well and hoping to see the competition pick up a loss in their matchup of the day. St. Louis will play every team currently ahead of them in the standings, excluding the division-leading Phillies and Dbacks. It’s unreasonable to hope for sweeps of every team, even if the Cardinals have been 9-4 since the bullpen shakeup (which is good for a likely-unsustainable 112-win pace). But, as we’ve seen, consistently winning series can make up some serious ground. Let’s take a quick look at the important opponents the Cardinals have in the home stretch.
Chicago Cubs (66-48) — 6.5 GB
Games Remaining: 3 @ CHC
Season Series: 9-7
The Cubs series this season has been a fun one. The two weekend walk-offs in the May series at Busch make up one of my favorite 2018 memories to this point. Most importantly, the Cardinals are actually leading the series. A major talking point to begin the season was the identical records the Cardinals and Cubs had outside their season series in 2017. Those records aren’t identical now, but...hey. Take the victories where you can. Taking two of three in Chicago would cement the season series win, but it won’t do anything to turn the tide of the divisional standings. The Cubs have, however, played to an 11-10 record since the All-Star Break. The series in Chicago will (fittingly) be the last three games of the 2018 season.
Milwaukee Brewers (66-51) — 5 GB
Games Remaining: 6 @ STL
Season Series: 6-7
The Brewers are the only NL Central opponent against whom the Cards have a losing record. The Redbirds have had a tough time figuring out the Brew Crew, and two losses in particular come to mind: 1) the walk-off loss featuring back-to-back homers in the ninth in 2018’s first Brewers-Cardinals series, and 2) the error-riddled Carlos Martínez start that even prompted Mike Matheny to acknowledge it as “embarrassing.” Armed with a revitalized bullpen, a reawakened offense, and however much weight you believe home-field advantage carries, the Cardinals have a chance to really shake up the wildcard race in their games against the Brewers. Milwaukee currently has a one-game lead on the first wildcard spot. This is a team St. Louis will have to really trounce to make a difference; two series wins only gain two games in the standings. Though they’re 11-8 since the break, the Brewers are 5-5 in their last ten games and 14-16 over their previous 30.
Atlanta Braves (62-49) — 4 GB
Games Remaining: 3 @ ATL
Season Series: 0-3
The lone series against the Braves this season was particularly frustrating, following a series against Cleveland in which the Cardinals beat up on Corey Kluber. It was a nicely-condensed version of the Redbirds’ season up to that point: wildly inconsistent. The Braves came out of nowhere this season and have put a young, exciting team on the field. (One could argue they should do the same in the broadcast booth.) They really shook things up at the trade deadline, trading for three Oriole pitchers (Brad Brach, Kevin Gausman, Darren O’Day), reliever Jonny Venters and corner outfielder Adam Duvall. What’s more, they’re 10-7 since the ASB and 8-2 over their last ten games. Competitive baseball is back in Atlanta. The Braves are in a back-and-forth with the Phillies for the NL East but, for now, they have sole possession of the second wildcard spot. A sweep would put the Cards a game back of the Braves. The series will take place in Atlanta, where I’m a sure a certain right field short porch will be calling the name of a particular left-handed MVP candidate.
Los Angeles Dodgers (63-52) — 3 GB
Games Remaining: 3 @ LAD, 4 @ STL
Season Series: N/A
The Cardinals have yet to see the Dodgers this season and it’s now very clear that it would’ve been better to finish this series in the first half. The Dodgers were 26-30 through the end of May before they erupted with a 17-9 June and 16-10 July to surge back into contention. They continue to trade ownership of the NL West lead with Arizona, sitting one game back from the Braves for the second wildcard spot. With seven games yet to be played, the Cardinals have a chance to catapult over LA in the wildcard race and eliminate some competition. Wishful thinking points to the Dodgers’ 10-9 record since the start of the All-Star Break as a possibility that they may be slowing down. With Justin Turner activated just a week ago and Manny Machado added at the trade deadline, that may not be the case.
Colorado Rockies (60-54) — 0.5 GB
Games Remaining: 3 @ COL
Season Series: 3-1
The first series with the Rockies is probably pretty fresh on everyone’s minds. It was the end of a particularly strong homestand and finished with a flourish, walking it off with a comeback win powered by a José Martínez single. Colorado has limped out of the gate since the ASB, playing right at .500 (9-9) and currently riding a two-game losing streak. The Rockies are just barely treading water at home with a 28-26 record; what’s the most mystifying is their -17 run differential in those home games. Even taking two out of three at Coors would put the Cards ahead of the Rockies in the overall standings.
Pittsburgh Pirates (59-56) — 1 GA
Games Remaining: 6 @ STL
Season Series: 7-6
The Cardinals came into last week’s set against the Pirates trailing in the season-long series but left with two games out of three in the bag (and arguably should’ve had the third as well). Pittsburgh went on an 11-game winning streak which spanned across the ASB, partially contributing to their 11-7 record since the break, but have played to a 5-5 record over their last ten games. Josh Bell had been on the disabled list for that entire time, so we may see a different Pirates team over the two series in St. Louis. Either way, I think we all remember what happened the first time the Buccos visited Busch this year...
Washington Nationals (58-56) — 1.5 GA
Games Remaining: 4 @ STL, 3 @ WAS
Season Series: N/A
Another team the Cardinals have yet to see this year, the Nationals have been quite a mystery. A playoff team last season with 97 wins, the Nats returned their cast this year with a new manager in former Rays/Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez. Given that it’s Bryce Harper’s contract year, most Nats fans were expecting something bigger, but injuries and inconsistencies said otherwise. Now, Washington is barely above .500 and sits six games behind the Phillies and Braves in the contest for the NL East. After finishing the first half right at .500 with a 48-48 record, the Nationals have looked a touch better in the second half, having played to the tune of 10-8. They’re still dealing with injuries, as Kelvin Herrera just went to the DL, and they traded reliever Brandon Kintzler to the Cubs at the deadline — trading away relief pitching isn’t typically the action of a contender. Not only could the Cardinals further the gap between themselves and the Nationals, this could be an opportunity to catapult over some other teams if they take advantage of the Nats’ down year.
The Remaining 12 Games
Aside from those 35 games, the Cardinals play four three-game series against four different teams: The Kansas City Royals (35-79), Cincinnati Reds (50-65), Detroit Tigers (47-68), and San Francisco Giants (57-58) — all of whom have played sub-.500 ball since the break. Even with the Reds’ improved play with Jim Riggleman at the helm, the Cardinals still own the season series 11-5. The Giants series is split 2-2 after a four-game set earlier this year. St. Louis has yet to play Tigers this season and lost the first series to the Royals 1-2, but they own two of the worst records in the majors — have to be thankful interleague play has the central divisions matching up this season, right?
All but four series the Cardinals will play to end the season have serious postseason implications, and the remaining four seem like prime record-padding opportunities. Even with low playoff odds, the Cardinals have every opportunity to turn things around and secure their first playoff birth since 2015. We’re going to see pretty quickly if this team’s turnaround is for real.