Friday, September 16, 2011

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in...

The best line of the otherwise forgettable movie "Godfather 3" is the perfect setup for a weekend of meaningful baseball in a season that, just two weeks ago, appeared to be as dead as Fredo Corleone. Ten games out in the NL Central and more than six behind Atlanta for the Wild Card, the only thing left for St. Louis Cardinals fans to talk about was the odds of Albert Pujols re-signing with the Redbirds or leaving for big free-agent money.

But a sweep of the Braves last weekend, combined with a two out of three series win in Pittsburgh has made the Cards legitimate contenders for a late-season run at the wild card. But do they really have what it takes to make the post-season? This weekend's series in Philadelphia will tell the tale, and it shapes up about as well as the Cardinals could have hoped in terms of pitching.

In the upcoming four-game series, Garcia, Westbrook and Lohse will match up against Worley (11-2), Oswalt (7-9) and Hamels (14-8). These are all imposing pitchers, but none of them is Cliff Lee, who is practically unhittable right now. Soon-to-be Cy Young winner Roy Halliday goes for the Phils in the Monday series closer, but he'll be opposed by Cards ace Chris Carpenter. It's about the most favorable pitching matchup the Cardinals could have hoped for.

St. Louis's pitching staff will have to be in post-season form for each game, because teams just don't score off Philly's staff. Pujols and Berkman both need to step up big at the plate, especially with Matt Holliday on the bench for the next week or so. A series split isn't good enough, and losing 3 of 4 would probably mean the end of this surprising surge for the Redbirds. Nothing less than a series win is going to keep St. Louis in the post-season hunt.

And the real surprise is that they are here at all. Since the All-Star break, this team has been below average in most phases of the game. The question is whether this late run is an aberration or if it shows the true potential of the team. Atlanta hosts the Mets this weekend, while Milwaukee, who has seen their NL Central lead over St. Louis shrink to 5.5 games, is on the road at Cincinnati.

The Cardinals can't play it safe and hope that the Braves and Brewers will continue to fall back. If they don't already realize it, Don Tony needs to remind them: from here on out, every game is a playoff game. The next four are against the NL's best ballclub. Do the Cardinals really have what it takes? Surprisingly, I will be watching—once again—to find out.

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