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With eight games in the final week, what exactly do the Cardinals need to do this week?

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

I came into Sunday, before the Cardinals 2-1 win over the Pirates which cemented a 4-game winning streak, with a rough plan to write about how actually Jack Flaherty is still the Cardinals best pitcher. When Flaherty struck out 11 in 6 innings, that didn’t really feel necessary anymore. I mean sure, there are people who disagree, but my idea is the kind of article that needs to be written after a pitcher gets blown up, not after a pitcher has his best start of the year.

In any case, the important thing is that Flaherty looked like his old self yesterday and that the Cardinals won. It was an extremely important win. All of the wins are like that now. If the Cardinals lost even one of the last four games against the Pirates, and all four games looked like possible losses late in the game, then the Cardinals would be in a three-way tie with the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers. As it stands, they’re a game up on both teams. That’s how close the standings are.

In fact, I thought today’s post could use a little refresher on the NL playoff race. It’s kind of confusing, and it certainly doesn’t help that the Cardinals and Brewers each have eight games this week while the Reds have just six games. This essentially means the Cardinals are spotted an extra game they can lose without worrying about the standings. Win one of the extra games, lose the other, they’re still a game up on the Reds.

But the NL Central is not the only avenue to make the playoffs, and because of that, I feel it necessary to write this post, which is just as much for myself as the people reading this. In addition to the Reds and Brewers, the Cardinals are a half game behind the Miami Marlins, a half game in front of the Philadelphia Phillies, and a game ahead of the San Francisco Giants. Behind the Giants is the Mets, who are 3.5 games behind, so we aren’t worried about them, or at the very least if they become a problem, I think the Cards are probably screwed anyway.

These sound like a lot of teams to be competing against! Well, it’s easier than it sounds. Between the Phillies and Marlins, one of them will be 2nd place in the NL East. The other is the competition. The Giants are a much simpler situation. The San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers both have the best record in the NL, and the Giants have no chance at catching them. Then of course, there’s the two other NL Central teams to worry about. Out of all the teams I’ve mentioned, only two will not make the playoffs.

So what do the Cardinals have to do this week, in all likelihood? Well, win obviously. I more mean, what record would the Cardinals have to achieve to feel a great degree of confidence to make the playoffs? Let’s look at the schedules of the teams involved. I’ll start with the other divisions, only because the NL Central is also a competition for 2nd place, and they don’t need 2nd place to make the playoffs. I’ll start with the team that is in the lead, the Marlins.

They, uh, they have a really difficult schedule. They play the Atlanta Braves for four games and then the New York Yankees for three. The Braves-Marlins series is actually important. The Marlins are only 3 games back of the Braves, so the Braves are going to try to secure 1st place with this series. They aren’t going to rest anybody to gear up for the playoffs. The Braves will probably want to win 3 of 4, which would net them the NL East crown, but even 2-2 puts them up 3 games with three games to play. But the important thing to know is that the Braves are going to put their A team out there for at least three games. And if they don’t put the A team out for the fourth game, they’ve probably already won three games in the series.

The Yankees series is not quite as favorable from the Cards perspective, since the Yankees have clinched a playoff berth and while they haven’t clinched 2nd place in the AL East yet, the Toronto Blue Jays are four games back of them, so they’ll likely have that clinched by Friday. Still though, the Yankees on cruise control is no easy win either. Despite being in 1st place, there’s a good chance the Marlins end up last among these teams at the end of the week.

The Phillies schedule is easier. They face the Washington Nationals for four games and then face the Tampa Bay Rays for three. The Nationals are certainly a bigger threat than their 20-32 record suggests, but the Phillies do miss Max Scherzer. And the Rays will have the playoffs clinched and maybe the division by then. But really, I simply don’t think the Nationals will be pushovers so I think they have a harder road here than you’d necessarily think just by record.

The Giants also have eight games. They face the Colorado Rockies for four and the San Diego Padres for four games. The Rockies on the road are not a team to be feared unfortunately and that’s a good matchup for the Giants. A four game series to end the year against the Padres might go well too. That includes a doubleheader on Friday, so with a clinched playoff spot and four games in three days, the Padres will probably try to tax their team as little as possible, so I would expect a decent amount of bench players to get playing time during that series. So you can easily see the Giants being a potential problem based on scheduling alone here.

Moving onto the NL Central, the Brewers are the easiest to map out because their fortunes will either directly help or hurt who they’re playing. Because they’re playing the other two teams in the NL Central playoff push. Tomorrow the Brewers play the Reds in a three-game series. With the Cardinals facing the Royals, this could not be better for the Cardinals. If you’re pushing for 2nd place, you hope one of the two teams goes 2-1, but if we’re strictly talking playoffs, a sweep by either is preferable. Pick your poison here.

The Reds do not have a game on Thursday. They end their season against the Minnesota Twins. The Twins have clinched a playoff spot already. If you want that last series to matter to the Twins, you hope that the Indians do well in their four game set against the Chicago White Sox, and that the Twins do poorly in their two game set against the Detroit Tigers. If you can at least pretend the Indians have a shot before the weekend series, the Indians face the Pittsburgh Pirates, so if the Twins haven’t clinched by then, they’ll certainly want to win. This is unlikely though, and there’s a good chance the Twins are playing meaningless baseball for them that weekend. Again though, the Twins still won’t be an easy win.

And of course, the Cardinals play the Brewers for five games. If you want to control your own destiny and you’re confident in the Cardinals against the Brewers, you hope the Brewers effectively knock out the Reds with a sweep. Of course, that would put the Brewers in a position of being on a seven-game win streak, having knocked out a rival, and well, that seems like a risky thing to hope for. Especially if the Cardinals don’t look good against the Royals.

Okay, so let’s run some possibilities here. The real question I’m asking by presenting up all this information is: What do the Cardinals need to do against the Brewers? The Royals is a lot easier to answer. They just need to win 2 out of 3. It is both unlikely the Cardinals sweep the Royals and that either of the Brewers or Reds sweep the other team, which means that we’d be entering the 5-game series against the Brewers in the same position as now, except either the Reds or Brewers would be 2 games back.

Assuming the most likely scenario plays out, you have to hope that the Brewers are the one to win the series against the Reds. With a weekend series against the Twins, the Reds would be two games out of 2nd place. The Cardinals and Brewers could split the two extra games they have to make up and stay 2 games ahead. Also, winning the series against the Brewers would guarantee 2nd place. Reds could even sweep the Twins and it wouldn’t matter.

If they lose 2 games to 3 in the series against the Brewers though, well that’s a little trickier. The final season records would be 30-28 for the Cardinals and 31-29 for the Brewers, and the Cardinals would have a slightly higher winning percentage. The Brewers would have the season series 6-4 though. I’m not sure which takes precedence. If it’s winning percentage, a Brewers series win over the Reds means the Cardinals just need to win two games, but if it’s H2H, the Cardinals would have to win three games.

On the flipside, if the Reds win the series against the Brewers 2 to 1 games, the Cardinals I think would just need to equal the number of games the Reds win against the Twins. So if the Cardinals win 3 out of 5 against the Brewers, the Reds would need to sweep the Twins just to tie the Cardinals in the standings, which would effectively grant the Cardinals 2nd place, given that the Cardinals would both have a better winning percentage and have the H2H results. Maybe we should root for the Reds? The Brewers series becomes much less important and the Cardinals having 5 games to win the same amount of games as the Reds have to win in 3 just to keep the two teams equal in the standing sounds pretty great.

So basically, if the Cardinals win 2 out of 3 to the Royals and the Brewers/Reds series goes 2 games to 1, the Cardinals only need to win 2 games in the Brewers series to make the playoffs if winning percentage is the tiebreaker and they have 2nd place. The exception is the Reds winning the series against the Brewers and then sweeping the Twins. Now imagine the odds if the Cards just swept the Royals. The Cardinals almost certainly aren’t going to make it that easy on us so I don’t even want to entertain that possibility.

So if the Cardinals go 4-4 this week, I believe the Giants would need to go 6-2. Because if they go 5-3, they would have a record of 31-29, and the Cardinals would have the higher winning percentage with a record of 30-28. The Phillies would need to go 5-2, because a 4-3 record also puts them at a record of 31-29. The Marlins meanwhile would need to go 4-3 against the Braves and Yankees.

So to answer the question of what the Cardinals need to do, the answer is really just go 2-1 against the Royals and go 2-3 against the Brewers. I’m honestly not sure where the potential two games against the Tigers comes into play here, but if things go wrong, they probably will still have those two games to play. Actually they may need to play these games in the events where the Cardinals have a slightly better winning percentage, but they’re tied in the standings. I don’t think they’d bother if the Cardinals were in 2nd place and playing those games would only affect whether the Cards would get 2nd place or make it as a Wild Card team. If they’re tied with a Wild Card team, maybe that’s a different story.

So as to not give us all headaches trying to figure out how exactly the standings will shake out in the event of a tie, the Cardinals should go 5-3 over the next eight games. That will grant them a playoff spot and likely 2nd place. But surprisingly, they appear to be well set up even if they lose the series against the Brewers. Of course, this means they have to win the series against the Royals. Do that and the Cards are well set up for the weekend five-game series.

So somehow, by the quirks of the Cardinals schedule this year, the Cardinals are within one game of four other teams, two of which will not make the playoffs, and the Cardinals simply need to go .500 in the final week to secure a playoff spot. That’s... very weird. And they have a doubleheader that can appear out of nowhere if they do worse than that against one of the worst teams in baseball. Cards, uh, don’t screw this up.

Note: After writing this, I became distinctly aware of the strong possibility that my assumption that the doubleheader against the Tigers would not have to be played in the event of a tie is probably wrong.