The NL Central has seen its share of weirdness throughout most of the 2011 season. The division leader has been a revolving door that the Cardinals, Reds, Brewers, and even the Pirates enjoyed a few turns through. But as the All Star Break shrinks in the rear view mirror, so does the number of contenders for what will likely be the only playoff spot to come out of this division.
The Brewers currently occupy first place, and the Cardinals are not far behind them. These two teams play each other nine more times this year; fortunately for the Cards, six of those meetings are in St. Louis. Playing in Milwaukee this season has roughly resembled walking into a minefield, which means the Cardinals must make the most of the Brewers’ visits to Busch Stadium. Those two series will be about as “must-win” as any regular season set.
And the two teams have remarkably similar schedules the rest of the way. They actually play all the same teams in the same number of series except for one; the Cards still have to play the Atlanta Braves, and the Brewers have one more series against the Astros than the Cards do.
The similarities don’t stop there, either. The Cardinals and Brewers are pretty even in most team stats. The Cardinals have the edge in a lot of offensive categories; the Brewers have a little better pitching overall. It probably comes as no surprise that the Cardinals have ground into way more double plays than the Brewers, but the fact that the Cards only have one more blown save is a little surprising. And the two teams have committed about the same number of errors, too.
If the teams are so even, then why is Milwaukee in front now? For starters, the Brewers are hot right now and the Cardinals are playing good—but not great—baseball. In the first half of the year, the opposite was true—and the standings were flip-flopped. But with less than a third of the season left, that seems like eons ago. Now every win is important and every loss has the potential to be disastrous. Falling five or six games out of first place at this point in the year could be the death knell, even for the Cardinals and that dynamite lineup.
For the Cardinals to keep pace and make a move to overtake the Brewers in the standings, they have to do the following:
1. Get the maximum out of the rotation. This does not mean every starter has to throw eight innings or 120 pitches every night. But these four and five inning outings have to disappear. The Cards have a stronger bullpen than before the trade deadline, but they will come apart quickly if overexposed. The five starters have to pitch efficiently, something that may be a little easier with Rafael Furcal manning shortstop.
2. Finish games. It hasn’t been pretty every time out, but the bullpen has certainly been better than it was in the first half of the season. That must continue. If the Cardinals win the division, it will be in spite of the numerous blown saves and ineffectiveness of pitchers who were so bad they were dumped by the team. If they lose the division, those shortcomings will catch a lot of the initial blame.
3. Beat the Brewers at Busch. It sounds oversimplified, but considering how good the Brewers are at home the Cardinals cannot afford to lose either of the remaining series against Milwaukee in St. Louis. Those are easily the six most important games of the stretch run in 2011.
4. Dominate the three weeks around Labor Day. Pirates, Brewers, Reds, Brewers, Braves, Pirates. Those are the Cardinals’ opponents August 25-September 14. Emotions will be high and position in the standings will be on the line every night. Winning most of those games would make a huge statement. So would losing most of them.
5. End on a high note. The Cardinals’ final three series of the regular season are against the Mets, Cubs, and Astros. All three teams could be showcasing a lot of youngsters to see what they have for next year. The Cards need to take it to them, especially with the Brewers finishing with six home games.
The Cardinals will have every opportunity to win the NL Central title this year. But the Brewers show no signs of folding, and the Reds or even the Pirates could nudge their way back into relevance. Even the Cubs are riding a six game winning streak. The Cards would do well to put together something similar. In fact, this would be a good time for a couple winning streaks like that. Stranger things have happened, and 2011 has already been strange enough.