No matter how you look at the season, it’s been an odd year for the St. Louis Cardinals. Aledmys Diaz and Jedd Gyorko led the Redbirds in batting average and home runs, respectively, after five months in the books. Adam Wainwright (4.61 ERA), Michael Wacha (4.45 ERA), and Mike Leake (4.56 ERA) all sported career-worst numbers on the mound. Then there were perplexing series losses to MLB’s worst teams while posting a 7-6 mark against the Cubs.
Yet somehow, the Cards were leading the race for the second wild card after 136 games. Based upon their projected win totals over the last 26 games, Baseball Prospectus models gave the Cardinals a 63% chance of making the postseason as a wild card. In that sense, everything has worked out according to plan for a club that already had its share of excitement for the season. With the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants the main competition in the wild card race, St. Louis can put all that behind it as a team and follow a clear path to the postseason.
Navigating a tricky schedule
There are of plenty of opportunities for the Cubs or Pirates to dash the Cardinals’ playoff hopes in the final weeks of the season. The remaining 26 games include 15 against Chicago (six), Pittsburgh (five), and San Francisco (four). St. Louis will have to win at least half those games to make the postseason with any level of comfort. A strong challenge from the Pirates would enter a fourth team into the race for the last two playoff spots.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, there are four remaining versus the Brewers — whom St. Louis has owned (11-4) this season — plus seven versus Cincinnati and Colorado. A potentially dangerous set would be the four against the Reds at home during the season’s final week. The Cards have played under .500 ball at Busch Stadium this year, and the slugging Reds put up crooked numbers with regularity. However, St. Louis should be able to turn this slate into the 14 wins it should need to play on.
There is no secret how the Cards have outscored the opposition by so much with a middle of the pack pitching staff: It’s the home runs. St. Louis had six players with 17 HR or more HR through September 5 with Gyorko (26) and Brandon Moss (25) at the top of the pack. An extreme cold spell from Moss in early September put a hitch in the club’s plans to put distance between itself and the Mets, but this team has enough weapons to maintain a strong pace through the end of the month.
Looking back on the front office’s decision to let Jason Heyward walk, you can see why the Cardinals felt comfortable with the move. Stephen Piscotty (20 HR, .816 OPS, 2.8 WAR) and Randal Grichuk (21 HR, .773 OPS, 1.3 WAR) have both outplayed Heyward (6 HR, .627 OPS, 1.2 WAR) while making the minimum salary. Heyward has been one of the biggest disappointments of the year for the Cubs at a cost of $23 million.
A strong Carlos Martinez
There has been regime change at the top end of the Cardinals rotation, with Carlos Martinez taking over for Wainwright as the club’s ace. Since the start of August, Martinez proved why he deserves that title, posting a 3-0 record and 2.18 ERA while average 6.2 IP per start. No other starter had more than one win over that span, and St. Louis might not be hanging onto a playoff spot without the young right-hander’s performance.
Some time in September, Martinez is going to match and surpass his career high in innings (179.2), so management will want to watch his workload in preparation for the playoffs. The Redbirds will need more ace-like work from Martinez if he faces the best from the Cubs and Giants in the home stretch. If he stays on this roll, you have to like St. Louis’s chances.
Get the ball to Seung Hwan Oh
The Cardinals’ pen has been one of the top five in baseball since the beginning of August, and Seung Hwan Oh has been the difference-maker in his first big-league season for Mike Matheny. Oh has saved 15 games and posted a 1.79 ERA over 70.1 innings, slotting in nicely behind a cast of characters that features Zach Duke, Jonathan Broxton, and rookie Alex Reyes.
As long as this formula continues to work for Matheny, the Cardinals look like they can fulfill their destiny and make the postseason one more time. Given the lack of depth in the rotation and the reliance on the long ball, we can’t see this team going deep into October. After such a topsy-turvy year for the organization, we’re guessing a postseason appearance would be just fine for St. Louis. Once you get in, anything can happen — including the chance to knock out the Cubs.
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