In a 6 to 2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, the 2022 Cardinals have won the National League Central Division.
St. Louis entered yesterday’s contest in Milwaukee with a 6.5-game lead on the Brewers, 7 wins up, and a magic number of 3. It does take some kind of magic to make 1 (Cardinals) win + 1 (Brewers) loss = 3. But, hey, I don’t do the math. I just write the words.
And the only words that matter are “2022 NL Central Champions”.
Was this an expected result?
If we rewind the tape to the beginning of the season, I think most fans hoped that the Cardinals would win the division and probably even predicted it. That’s what fans do. But they did so while acknowledging the Brewers’ impressive performance in 2021 and continued high expectations for 2022.
The Brewers had some room to fall from last year and the Cardinals needed to be a bit better for this to be close.
That’s what I expected: a divisional race that would go down to the wire. The optimistic fan in me believed the Cardinals could pull that out with 92 wins.
The Brewers have been much worse than expected. They sit at just 82 wins after last night’s loss and are on the outside of the playoffs for now.
The Cardinals have been much better than expected. My 92-win prediction defied even the most optimistic computer projections. If memory serves – and it probably doesn’t – ZiPS had the Cardinals in the 87-90 win range. Steamer/Depth Charts was a bit below that. Baseball Prospectus and PECOTA had the Redbirds several games under .500.
(I think it’s time to throw PECOTA out. Sorry, BP, but it’s very hard to take that system seriously anymore. I keep giving it time around here out of habit, but frankly, it’s just getting embarrassing.)
The Cardinals clinched with their 90th win on the season. They have one more against Milwaukee today. Then they play 6 against Pittsburgh.
If we do some prognosticating, we can maybe put this division championship in a little context.
90 wins today. Let’s say they split this series against the Brewers and then win 4 of 6 against Pittsburgh. That’s a 94-68 record.
Where does that sit among other Cardinals division winners in recent history?
2019: Their last division crown came in 2019 when the Cards won 91 games and finished 2 ahead of the Brewers. That team went on to get swept in the NLCS by the World Series winning Nationals.
2015: The 2015 team won 100 games in a very competitive NL Central. The Pirates finished with 98 wins and the Cubs 97. This team, built around defense and pitching, lost a forgettable NLDS series against the Wild Card Cubs.
2014: The 2014 Cardinals sneaked out a division crown against the Pirates, taking the division by 2 games. They reached the NLCS after knocking out the Dodgers but lost to the World Series-winning San Francisco Giants.
2013: The 2013 Cardinals were, arguably, the most complete team of the decade. They won 97 games, 3 more than the Pirates, and had the best record in the National League. That translated to the postseason, where the Cardinals put down the Pirates and Dodgers to reach the World Series. They lost to the Red Sox.
The Cardinals won the division 6 times in the 2000s. I’ve thought for a while that it was the early 2000s teams that are the best match for this year’s Cardinals.
2000: In 2000, for example, the Cardinals won 95 games. They finished 10 games ahead of the 85-win Reds. They knocked off a good Braves team in the Division Series, but couldn’t get past the Mets in the NLCS.
That team, like the 2022 Cardinals, had two offensive superstars in Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds, plus a talented and deep supporting cast of hitters. The pitching was decent. Darryl Kile wasn’t as good as I remembered that season. But Rick Ankiel truly was a budding star. Garrett Stephenson, Pat Hentgen, and Andy Benes got their innings in. The bullpen was a bit all over the place.
It’s not a perfect match for the 2022 Cardinals, but the similarities are there.
2002: The 2002 Cardinals don’t line up quite as well. This club won 97 games and blew the division up, winning by 13 games over the 84-win Astros. They beat the Diamondbacks before running into their rival Giants in the NLCS.
The 2002 Cardinals had Albert in his peak performance. Jim Edmonds was a beast. Edgar Renteria had a very good season at shortstop. Scott Rolen came over in a trade late in the season.
The pitching staff was excellent. Matt Morris had a very good season. Woody Williams was brilliant when healthy. As was Andy Benes. Chuck Finley is a good match for either Jose Quintana or Jordan Montgomery as a mid-summer pick-up to solidify the rotation after the tragedy with Darryl Kile.
Feel free to debate this in the comments, but it’s that 2000 Cardinals team that seems to fit this club the best. It might also do the best job of establishing expectations for the 2022 playoffs.
First, let me state the obvious. Cardinals teams that win the division are expected to win at least one playoff series. That’s been the norm. And the teams that didn’t do it – like the 2015 club – are viewed as serious disappointments.
Those 2000 Cardinals won their divisional round playoff series and reached the NLCS before losing to the Mets. They “won a playoff series” and “reached the NLCS”.
That formula is no longer available to the Cardinals. Since they are just the third best division winner in the National League, this division championship only secures the Cardinals’ a home series in the new “Wild Card” round of the 2022 playoffs.
They’ll play three games in three days at Busch against the Phillies, if nothing changes in the standings. The Dodgers and Mets, meanwhile, will get first-round byes and get to rest up and line up their pitching staffs for their Division Series matchups.
As the 3 seed in the National League, the Cardinals could “win a playoff series” and then go on to face the Mets in a best-of-five Divisional Round.
The symmetry is there with the 2000 club. That extra round makes it that much more difficult to match the results.
Like the 200 team, this 2022 team should be good enough to win a playoff series. They should get past the Phillies.
Are they good enough to win a second playoff series and reach the NLCS? A third and reach the World Series? A fourth series and take the championship?
I’m a fan. And I love this team. But all of that seems to be asking a bit much for this squad.
This team, like the 2000 team, should win a playoff series. It will be a disappointing end to this incredible season if the club can’t get past the Phillies with three games at home.
I don’t think I expect them to get past the Mets, though. We can hope they will. As fans, we can even predict it. But it feels like a long shot.
The path to the NLCS is harder than it’s ever been for a divisional winner. Yes, that just means the club needs to place a greater emphasis on not only winning the division but trying to compete with the best teams in the National League. The Cardinals built a contender. They built a team that could push past the Brewers. But they are still a few steps behind the Dodgers, Mets, and even the Braves.
It doesn’t mean it can’t happen or won’t happen. I just wouldn’t expect it.
This team should win the Wild Card round. I won’t be that disappointed in them, though, if they can’t get to the NLCS.
But, hey, we’ll just have to see! And as Oli said during last night’s celebration, “you’ve gotta enjoy the burn!”
I’m going to enjoy this now relaxing final week of baseball. And then I’m going to enjoy the heck out of Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Albert Pujols, Paul Goldschmidt, and Nolan Arenado taking a division winner into the postseason tournament. Anything could happen. Let’s hope it does.