The Cardinals had a good day yesterday, sweeping a doubleheader from the Cubs at Wrigley. Technically, the Redbirds were the home team for one of the two games, but still, pretty impressive to take two from your chief rival in their ballpark, even when it’s apparently half yours, like in a divorce.
The downside is that, despite taking two in a row from the Cubs, the Cards are still just barely above .500. One game above, to be specific; the club’s 16-15 record has them solidly in second place in the Central, two and a half games behind Chicago, but a game and a half clear of the Brewers.
The Cards do have the best run differential in the division, by a pretty fair margin. The Cubs have a +13 differential in 40 games. The Brewers, Reds, and Pirates are all sporting negative run differentials. The Cardinals? They’re at a +22 in just 31 games. The Cards’ real-world record paints them as about an 84 win team; their Pythagorean record sees them a full ten games better than that.
Really, though, very little of that matters, because what this season feels like is another year caught in purgatory, a team stuck in neutral, unable to really make any progress. And that, sadly, is probably what we should have expected from this season. Maybe not from the beginning, mind you; back in February, when we thought we were getting a regular baseball season, the Cardinals looked like a pretty good team. Not a great team, maybe, but a solidly good club. I would have guessed they were somewhere between an 87 and a 92 win team, depending on the breaks. Bullpen struggles? You’re at 86 wins, looking up at a playoff spot that’s just out of reach. Rookie comes up and mashes and the rotation overachieves? You’re at 93, maybe 94 wins, and it feels like a second straight LCS appearance is well within reach.
Once the pandemic took hold and the season was postponed, the error bars obviously got a lot larger, but the team didn’t really feel all that different. When we found out the season would be 60 games, it felt like the Cards should probably win around 35 of those, maybe a couple more or less, again depending on the breaks. And by breaks, I mean things like a couple extra blown saves, or a 15-8 record in one-run games. I do not mean missing two and a half weeks due to the worst outbreak of covid any team in baseball has endured so far, then being forced to play a crazy schedule with doubleheaders every third day in order to try and get the full season’s worth of games in.
Once that happened, once the Cardinals’ season was upended yet again by a closet epidemic, all of our expectations really should have gone right out the window. Or, at least, all the good expectations. Nothing that has happened since the team’s shutdown should be surprising. Not the fatigued pitchers, not the uneven offense, not the mental mistakes which look like clear results of tired players, not any of it. Expecting anything other than a tough, oftentimes miserable, road through the rest of the season just wasn’t realistic.
And yet, we’ve also seen plenty of things which still were unexpected, both positive and negative. How often do you lose a starting pitcher to a kidney ailment out of nowhere? Correct me if my memory is failing me, but I don’t remember another kidney-related injury this century for the Cardinals. Trying to predict how players would return from illness, even those who got brushed with barely any symptoms at all, was a fool’s errand. Horrible injury luck amongst the pitching staff in general occasionally hits a club; the fact it has hit a club already looking down the barrel of an unprecedented schedule seems unnecessarily cruel.
Then again, the unexpected can be kind, as well. I certainly didn’t see a renaissance at 39 for Adam Wainwright. If there is anything more unexpected in baseball than a guy taking the mound on his 39th birthday and throwing a complete game four-hitter, I don’t know what it is.
Signing a career journeyman utility player and watching him post a 1.000+ OPS for 100 plate appearances is certainly unexpected, too. And joyous. Sometimes magical things just happen out of nowhere, and you have to enjoy them, because all the other stuff is far, far less magical. Maybe it’s unexpected that your top prospect comes up and struggles out of the gate, too, but then again, maybe not. Maybe that’s just what happens to 21 year old kids a lot of the time when they get their first taste of the big leagues. If it was easy, everyone would do it, after all.
We have reached and now just barely passed the midpoint of this sprint to the finish in which the Cardinals find themselves. Most other teams, of course, have long since moved well past that number, but there are a handful of clubs only in mid-30s in terms of games played, so the Redbirds are actually catching up pretty quickly now. I don’t expect we’ll get through the rest of this season, and the postseason, without another flare up on some team’s roster, but I’m hoping we get lucky. The unexpected now would be to smoothly sail on into October with no more problems, and then enjoy some weird round robin tournament baseball, but just because it would be unexpected doesn’t mean we can’t hope.
I suppose that applies to other things, as well; a playoff run would be supremely unexpected from a club that has had to play 45 games over something like 30 days to finish out the season, but I suppose stranger things have happened. Actually, that may or may not be true; when I said earlier the Cardinals were playing an unprecedented schedule, I wasn’t exaggerating. No team in baseball history has ever played this kind of schedule before, and even if we want to go back into the distant past of the early 20th century, when teams went on barnstorming tours in between training camp games and traveled everywhere by train, the difference was that, even if they did play three doubleheaders in a week and had to ride by donkey-drawn cart up to Toledo to play a semipro club from the local miner’s union, every other club was doing basically the same thing. Never before in baseball history has a team played a schedule so extreme, but specifically so extremely different from every one of their competitors.
In light of all that, the expected and the unexpected, a game above .500 is probably the best we can expect. And what should we expect the rest of the way? I don’t know. Personally, I’m not all that optimistic; the team has not looked horribly fatigued yet, considering what they’ve gone through, but I feel like it’s catching up with them the longer we go. Of course, losing starters to out-of-nowhere ailments hurts a hell of a lot too.
I expect the rest of the season will look and feel a lot like what we’ve had so far. Treading water, but nobly and impressively. Unexpected things happen all the time, though, and maybe we’ll get a little more magic. Tomorrow is Labor Day, usually the final signpost of the season as it rounds into the final sprint to the finish. This year we’ve had only the sprint following endless waiting. Labor Day doesn’t seem to have much meaning in that context.
This whole season, this whole year, really, has been the most unexpected of most of our lives, full of the most unexpected banality imaginable. Maybe we’ll get something better as autumn replaces summer.
Fingers crossed, anyway.