One week, six games, all against the two teams ahead of you.
The schedule, and baseball as a whole, have conspired to offer us a gift, ladies and gentlemen. We have a final week that any baseball fan would love to have, as our boys in red attempt to chase down one or both of the clubs leading the way in the Central division, entirely through head to head matchups. We could ask for the Cards to be a game or two closer to the top, perhaps, but we couldn’t really ask for a more exciting sprint to the end.
At this point, it’s very unlikely the Cardinals will be able to chase down the Cubs for the division, unfortunately; there simply aren’t enough games left to make up four and a half games unless Chicago just refuses to win again this season, essentially. If you want something to blame, look at the Cards’ poor performances in Detroit, or the fact they’ve struggled lately against the Reds. The Dodgers series was ugly, but that happens sometimes when you’re playing really great teams, even if you’re a pretty damned good club yourself. Falling on your face against a terrible Tigers club, or not taking advantage of the garbage pitching of Cincinnati, is the sort of thing that really torpedoes a playoff run.
Or, of course, we could always just continue asking the question of what if?, as in, what if the Cardinals had made the change at manager a month earlier? A week earlier? Hell, where would the Redbirds be right now had they made the switch last year, instead of just firing the third base coach? I’m not saying Mike Shildt is a managerial genius, just that the club as a whole is clearly a far more cohesive unit under him than what we saw from the Mike Matheny Cardinals. Then again, had Dexter Fowler not gotten hurt, it’s much less clear how much improvement the club would have made, so we can go back and forth on hypotheticals all day long.
So the Cubs, sadly, are probably just a touch out of reach. The Brewers, however, are very much within the grasp of the Redbirds, should the Cards be able to handle their business three more games at home. A sweep isn’t 100% necessary, but 90% necessary wouldn’t sound crazy. Winning two of three probably just isn’t quite good enough to overtake Milwaukee; at this point in the schedule the games left are essentially a ticking clock, and picking up just one game over three contests doesn’t leave enough time to make the move you need to make.
Obviously, the number one priority has to be simply winning enough games to hold off the Rockies and get into the Wild Card game, but the Cardinals are close enough we can hope, and ask, for more. They’re close enough we can dream of a Chicago swoon, or for the Brewers to come in to St. Louis and bomb out over the next couple days. In short, the Cardinals are, if not exactly where we would like them to be — that would require one of those Detroit games and one Cincinnati loss to flip over to wins — then certainly right in the neighbourhood of where we would want them to be. The Cardinals are in the thick of the playoff race, with their collective fate held in their own hands, and we have not just meaningful baseball the final week of the season, but the most meaningful baseball one can really imagine.
And that, to me, will be the legacy of this 2018 Cardinals team, for better or for worse, Even, god forbid, if they somehow stumble so badly this last stretch that they end up watching the play-in game from the sofa, rather than the dugout, what I will remember of this season is that the Cardinals came back in 2018. Not came back like a comeback victory, but came back as in the St. Louis Cardinals are now back where they belong, contending up to the very last games of the season to get in to the postseason.
To be fair, it isn’t as if the Redbirds have been really out of contention for years now. In 2015, they won 100 games and went into the playoffs as the number one seed in the NL. It didn’t go well, but focusing too much on one postseason series is missing the forest for all those trees. In 2016 they missed the playoffs by a single game, which was certainly frustrating, but they were still right in the thick of things until the very end. Admittedly, 86 wins and juuuust missing feels much worse than 92 and juuuust missing, but again, let’s have some perspective. If you’re playing the last week of the season with a chance, it’s hard to really complain too very much.
But 2017? I’ll admit that 2017 felt dark. The Cards fell off a couple more wins, to 83, and were not, in fact, right there at the end. They finished four games shy of the second Wild Card spot, with the Brewers between them and the Rockies, and things just felt bad for much of the season. To be fair, the run differential said the Cards should have been an 87 win club, rather than an 83 win one, and thus tied with the Rockies for that second spot, but we all saw the way the 2017 Cardinals played baseball. Even if they deserved to be better than an 83 win club, they earned every one of those 79 losses. The team felt better at the end of the year than they did the beginning, with Jhonny Peralta and Aledmys Diaz no longer holding down the left side of the infield, but even so it felt like the Redbirds had fallen very, very far from where they had been for so long.
This season dawned with renewed hope, with a new middle of the order bat in the fold, last year’s breakout star ensconced in center field, and a revamped bullpen that promised far more strikeout punch and stability than the Cards had had for the last couple seasons.
And then, well....the season started. The Redbirds got out of the gate extremely fast, pushing to a 20-12 record by the 6th of May, but a lot of that record came from beating up on a Cincinnati club that was absolutely hopeless at the time. The Cards played the Reds seven times over the first 32 games, and won all seven. That can make a club’s record look much better than it probably has a right to. (To be fair, the Cards also got punched in the mouth by the Mets early on when the Mets looked like world-beaters, before they remembered who they are.)
So the record looked good early on, but it was obvious there were problems. The bullpen never stabilised, being an even bigger problem this season than last year, the offense produced only in fits and starts, with a couple of the club’s more important bats getting off to horrific starts, and while the starting pitching mostly held things together, injury concerns knocked some of the upside off what we could hope for from the rotation. It felt like more of a continuation of the bad parts of 2017, without the sudden emergence of a Tommy Pham or Paul DeJong to offset the entropy.
But now? Now the club has a new manager, a new lease on life, two new exciting outfielders who could be prime parts of a championship club for years to come, and we’re looking at six games left, with at least an outside shot at a division title. Not a likely shot, as I said, by any means, but it’s still a shot. Admittedly, I don’t feel like this team has what it takes to make a deep postseason run, mostly because the bullpen is still an issue, even with some notable improvements having been made already, but I also feel like this club now is closer to a championship than they have been since at least 2015, and probably more like 2013. There are still things that will have to be done this offseason, and if the Cardinals do not make any significant upgrades at all I’ll be very disappointed once again, but rolling this same team out next year with even just a couple bullpen pieces changed out could net them 90 wins again, I believe.
For now, though, I choose to simply enjoy and appreciate the fact that there are six games left in yet another baseball season, and we don’t know what will happen. The Cardinals, if they can simply split the final six games against Chicago and Milwaukee, can get back to that 90 win plateau that has eluded them each of the past two years. If they can take four of six, they can get back to 20 games over .500, a mark they have not reached since the final day of the 2015 season.
It hasn’t been the easiest road the last couple years for the Cardinals, and even this season there has been turmoil, and struggle, and malfunctioning portions of the team that have kept the club as a whole from taking off the way they maybe could have. But even with all that, we have one week left to go, and nearly anything is possible. That feeling is one I don’t believe many of us have felt the past few seasons. It feels good to have the future back.