Tuesday, September 20, 2011

There's still much work to do

Now I'm not about to try to pass myself off as some sort of prophet, because before this weekend series between the Cardinals and the Phillies, I was only stating the most obvious point: the Cardinals had to, at the very least, win three of four from the Phillies to have a chance to catch Atlanta for the NL Wild Card. After Saturday night's eighth-inning bullpen meltdown and Roy Halladay looming on Monday's pitching matchups, it looked like a sister-kissing split was the best we could hope for.

Let's all be thankful for pleasant surprises. Enigmatic Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse reverted to the form that helped him land a fat contract and actually outpitched the Cy Young candidate Halladay, and the bullpen managed NOT to cough up a 4-1 lead in the ninth as the Redbirds left the City of Brotherly Battery Throwing with three wins out of four in their pocket.

In the meantime, the Atlanta Braves, doing their best to imitate Boston's epic wild card meltdown in the AL, lost another game to minor-league powerhouse Florida, thus reducing their lead in the NL wild card race over St. Louis to 2-1/2 games.

The Cardinals should be commended for not giving up when by all rational accounts, they were far out of the race for the postseason. Their resurgence came under the cloud of injuries, poor hitting (leading the league in double-plays), suspect defense, and a bullpen with the stability of a Molotov cocktail. To be sure, Atlanta's descent plays an important role, but the Cardinals could have phoned it in and no one would have noticed--Cardinal Nation tuned out after we fell more than 10 games behind Milwaukee.

But the Cardinals haven't actually accomplished anything yet. They still have to make up 2-1/2 games, and they only have nine games left in the season. Up first, six at home this week against the Mets (73-80) and the Cubs (68-86), then the final three at Houston (53-100). Allow me to attempt to be a prophet now, even if it is blindingly obvious: the Cardinals must win nine in a row to win the NL wild card and sneak into the playoffs.

Atlanta has two more games at Florida, then three at Washington, followed by the final three at home against Philly. Assuming that Philly is resting starters for those final three, it's not out of the question that the Braves could easily win 7 of 8, which would still clinch it for them. And let's not forget the Giants, who are only one game behind the Cardinals. They're on the road at LA, Arizona, then home against Colorado. Theirs seems like a tougher road, but they have solid pitching, so they could still end up on top.

The formula for the Cardinals is simple--they have to play better than they have to get over this last wall. The defense must be airtight. Batters must stop grounding into double-plays, especially with men in scoring position. And the bullpen must tighten up all the screws and slam that door shut, especially in the eighth and ninth innings.

Easier said than done? Of course! But we're home for six, then at Houston, who've already lost 100 games this season. We've come this far by playing barely above-average baseball. The official MLB playoffs may still be a couple of weeks away, but they've already started for the Cardinals, and from here on out, they need to play as if every game is the seventh in the series.

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