Heading into this weekend, the Cardinals trail the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central standings by 4 games. After losing the first two games in the series, the redbirds came back to avoid the sweep last night behind heretofore elusive solid performances by Chris Carpenter & Albert Pujols. Carp went 8 innings strong, and though he surrendered 10 hits, only 2 of those clowns crossed the plate. He didn’t have the level of masterful control that we’ve seen from him at times, walking 3, and striking out 4, but I’ll definitely take last night’s 119-pitch performance. Albert went deep for his 28th bomb of the year as part of his 4 – 4 night, with 2 RBI & 2 runs scored. There were other contributing factors by other players too, Furcal’s 1st inning HR for example. In order to win, and play in October, however, there are four things that must happen.
- Starting pitching must show up, go deep, and pitch effectively. Every night. Chris Carpenter has improved over the version of him we saw during the first half of the season. In his last 10 starts, he’s 7-1 with a 2.60 ERA, averaging more than 7IP over that span. I’m not ready to call him John Tudor just yet, though. This recent turn-around is key, and as the ace of the staff, the Cardinals will need his leadership if they want to make a run at another division championship. There are a lot of questions surrounding Kyle Lohse and his finger right now, and while Jake Westbrook is capable of pitching well, he’s not done so consistently. Jamie Garcia has cooled off a bit, but is still pitching well, and Edwin Jackson has shown that he can be a tremendous asset as well. That said, there isn’t one of these guys that we haven’t seen go out there and get annihilated at one point or another this year. But trailing in the division in this final ⅓ of the season means there is less and less room for sub-par performances by the starting staff.
- The pillars of this team need to act like the pillars of this team. Last night was a perfect example of that with teams leaders like Pujols & Carpenter stepping up and leading. Thus far, Berkman & Holliday have “done what they’re supposed to do” offensively, Berkman far exceeding expectations, in fact. Both of these men were brought to this team for their presence in the lineup. The Cardinals wanted to make it clear: If you’re going to pitch around Albert, then you’re going to have to face Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman. As it turns out though, going right after Pujols hasn’t really turned out to hurt opposing pitchers all that much. I mentioned Carpenter, but the other key pieces of this team are going to have to man up as we head into the middle of August if they want to be playing when the calendar turns to October.
- “Other guys” have to come out of nowhere with clutch hits (I know, I know, no such thing, right?) and other big plays that make a difference in games. I’m talking about Ronnie Belliard-type stuff. Reggie Sanders. Guys that 5 years from now, you’d have forgotten were even on the club without “those plays”. Remember Cesar Izturis? Me either, and that was ‘08. If players like Corey Patterson, Ryan Theriot, or Gerald Laird can step up when they get opportunities to help this club win, it’s going to be a difference-maker. If not, winter starts in September.
- Gonna have to have a little bit of luck. Let me clarify: The Cardinals will need good luck…even if that means the Brewers running into a little bad luck. Luck might be related to health (of, say, Lance Lynn or Kyle Lohse) or a blown call by an umpire, which, by the way, should NOT be hard to imagine happening these days. Having things go the Cards way may result in a winning of streak of more than (are you ready for this, their longest of the season) 4 games.
I believe that, barring injuries (to other clubs, like the Braves), the Cardinals are going to have to win the division to make the playoffs, and Milwaukee is the only team standing between them and that opportunity. Atlanta has been absolutely stellar this year, and are possibly the most overlooked team in all of baseball this season. (They’d be in first place in every other division in baseball, save the AL East) Couple that with a MLB environment that plays host to a meager one wildcard playoff spot, and I think the redbirds know what they need to do.