It Has Officially Gotten Interesting

Remember when the Cardinals’ front office was toying with the idea of trading away outfielder, Lance Berkman, to the playoff-bound Texas Rangers? They even went so far as to put him on waivers, but never pulled the trigger on the deal.

That, believe it or not, was August 31st… exactly 3 weeks ago. The Cardinals, who were as many as 10.5 games back of the wild card leading Atlanta Braves just days earlier, were still 9.5 games back and seemingly had nothing to play for but pride. At the time, many baseball analysts in St. Louis suggested the Cardinals had only kept Berkman on the team to ensure they could negotiate with him over the next couple months and perhaps lock him in for a contract extension. Few thought Lance would be a driving force behind a desperate surge towards post season play in the season’s final month.

But here we are, exactly 3 weeks later, and the Cardinals are now just 2.5 games behind the Braves in the wild card race. Berkman has hit a mere .385 this month, and the Cardinals have gone 12-5 including the team’s first 5 game winning streak of the season. Atlanta, meanwhile, has gone 5-12 and can’t seem to be able to buy a win, including Monday night’s giveaway in Florida where they were one out away from a win only to have it slip away.

Breaking Down the Next 9 Days
With 9 days to go in the regular season, a lot still has to go right for the Cardinals to make the playoffs… but the schedule does line up in their favor.

Tuesday through Thursday
The Cardinals will take on the New York Mets. They come in with a record of 73-80, good for 8th in the National League, and have dropped 9 of their past 12 games. The Braves, meanwhile, are in Florida for two more games before an off day on Thursday. The Marlins (70-84) have won 7 of their last 12.

Friday through Sunday
The Cardinals host the National League’s 3rd worst team, Chicago Cubs. The Cubs currently hold a record of (68-86) and have won 7 of their past 12, but should cool off in Milwaukee, where the Brewers are closing in on the Central Division title. Atlanta will jet off to the Nation’s Capital, where they’ll be greeted by the untouchable Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals currently sit at 72-79 and have won 6 of their past 8 games.

*Important note: If the Cardinals can at least keep pace with the Braves over these six games and stay within 3 games, then it’s anyone’s race at that point, because…

Monday through Wednesday, September 26-28
The Cardinals travel to Houston for a 3-game series vs the bottom-feeders of Major League Baseball, the Astros, while the Braves host baseball’s best team and division rival, the Philadelphia Phillies. Houston is 53-100, and will be looking to be put out of their misery once and for all. And while the Phillies (98-54) won’t be sending Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee to the hill vs the Braves with their playoff destiny already wrapped up, their lineup can still out-slug anyone (and need I remind you, the “bottom” of their rotation features Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt).

What it All Comes Down to
Weighing the Braves’ recent struggles with their schedule, I’d say it’s fair to assume they’ll split their final 8 games and finish with a record of 91-71. That would mean the Cardinals would have to go 7-2 down the stretch just to force a 1-game playoff vs the Braves. That’s a tall order, but given their opponents, it’s not an impossible one. Also helping matters, the Cardinals top-3 starting pitchers – Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, and Edwin Jackson – will take the hill 6 of those 9 games.

It will be fun to see if the Cardinals can find a way to pull off the unthinkable. Regardless of the outcome, you have to give the team credit for making this interesting considering all they’ve been through this season (raise your hand if you thought the season was a complete loss the moment Adam Wainwright went down in Spring Training). But forget the injuries, blown saves, costly errors, and questionable managing decisions. There are 9 games left… and only 2.5 separating the Cardinals from a chance at ending the franchise’s 5 year playoff winless drought.

Play ball.

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