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The Head and the Heart

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St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Last night was the harvest moon, and today is the autumn equinox. That tells you the when of this thing; we are approaching the end of the 2021 baseball season. It’s late September and I really should be back at school, as the song goes.

Last night, the Cardinals won a nailbiter of a game against the Brewers in Milwaukee; the win brought the club to 81-69 on the season, ensuring the Cardinals would not post a losing record again this year. The last time the Redbirds finished below .500 in a season was 2007. Think of how many teardowns and rebuilds and teardown agains have come and gone across the game since 2007. The Cardinals have been a winning ballclub every single year over all that time.

Last night the Cards’ win pushed their playoff odds to 92.5%, according to Baseball-Reference. In other words, it would take an historic collapse at this point in the season for El Birdos to now miss the postseason. They have not yet pushed their playoff odds for to the point their playoff odds against reached just a few weeks ago, when their chances of reaching the postseason fell into the 2-3% range, but they’re getting close. Barring said historic collapse, the Cards should reach the postseason for the third straight year, and will face the Dodgers in the wild card play-in game.

Last night, the Cardinals won their tenth game in a row, marking the franchise’s longest winning streak since 2001, a year which seems a lifetime ago now. A year which, in fact, was a liftetime ago, at least for young people and all the various things on earth which live less than twenty years. Try to remember what your life was like in 2001. I’m sure you can get the broad strokes, unless you are quite young indeed. You probably recall where you lived, who your friends were, what job you had or what classes you were in, that sort of thing. But can you remember how it felt to be you in 2001? That is very likely a thornier issue, and harder to recall. The Cards’ last ten-game winning streak is in the past beyond our ability to feel, the past where facts remain but our selves are almost certainly obscured.

All of which is to say that we have been here before, many times, but not in exactly this way. We reach this point in the baseball season every year, when the leaves begin dropping and those October evenings begin to call out. We see Cardinal teams headed for the postseason only slightly less often, a near-annual event of civic pride and excitement. We have not seen a streak like this in two decades, and we have not seen a turnaround in fortunes of exactly this sort in exactly one decade.

Jon Lester getting his 200th win in a Cardinal uniform was not, I wouldn’t imagine, on anyone’s list of things to watch for in 2021. One of the longest of long-term enemies we have in Cardinaldom is now one of the Good Guys, and he just racked up a career milestone of epic proportions wearing a uniform he spent most of his time in the majors spiting at nearly every turn. These things happen sometimes.

This season has been a constant battle between the head and the heart. The head would tell us the smart thing would have been for the Cardinals to sell at the deadline, to try and reset for 2022 and brighter days ahead. There is a large part of me that still feels that way, that sees a play-in game against the Dodgers as a pretty lousy outcome for all the effort and care put into this season, and that it would have been better to take a longer-term outlook at the deadline, plan ahead for the next few years, and try to give yourself a better chance at a legitimate title shot.

The heart, on the other hand, wants what it wants, and what the heart of any Cardinal fan most wants is to see the final week of September come with the sea of red cheering and anticipating a spot in the dance, a chance at glory. And that is what we have, and so it is hard not to be happy. There was a three percent chance at this outcome a little over a week ago. Now it is almost certain there will be at least one more game to play after the 2021 regular season comes to a close.

It has, of course, been an unlikely ride. The Cardinals have played brilliant ball of late, obviously, but they have also required multiple other teams to go almost completely in the tank to reach this point. The Padres looked like a near-juggernaut at one point, with the likely NL MVP anchoring their club. They have turned out to be a juggernot, however (yeah, I made that stupid joke. What are you going to do about it?), with a pitching staff incapable of carrying a title-chasing team’s dreams into October. The Reds have been a pitching powerhouse this year with a still-vital Joey Votto doing crazy peak Joey Votto things, but a bad bullpen, forever the bane of Reds clubs, and a couple of complete collapses in the lineup have likely doomed them to an autumn spent on the golf course. The NL East scrum has chewed up every team in the division, but the Mets had the clear path on paper, and even in the actual standings for awhile. They are now five games below .500, and there will be no joy in Queens when the season is done. The Phillies and Braves are fighting it out for the division, but so long as the Cards handle their business reasonably well the rest of the way it’s fairly unlikely either club could run them down.

In other words, it was not enough for the Cardinals to play as well as any Redbird team of this century over the past couple weeks. They also needed some historic luck, for multiple clubs ahead of them to fall by the wayside. Was it a smart path on which to bet? That’s tough to say. Probably not, honestly. But here we are, and there are meaningful games of baseball here in this final month of the season. There will be time later to wonder over the right and wrong of the decisions that were made, whether these were the correct bets to place on this team at this time. For now, though, I will simply enjoy this. The Cards bet high on a single-number roulette spin, and they nailed it. The league has fallen away, the Redbirds have surged, and it appears there will be October baseball in the future of the club. I hope it is not only a single game.

I don’t know if this is right. If this is smart. My head says no. My heart wants October. I suspect many of you feel the same.