The Cardinals never said they were making this easy. They didn’t force anyone to get back on their bandwagon a couple weeks ago when it had all but emptied with the start of football season and a seemingly insurmountable deficit in the National League Wild Card race.
On September 11th, with the St. Louis Rams kicking off their season just a few blocks away at the Edward Jones Dome, only 39,710 watched on as the Cardinals closed out their series with the Braves… nearly 2,000 fewer fans than the previous Sunday (and even that was an inflated number as the Cardinals gave away thousands of tickets to military members, police officers, paramedics, and fire fighters). Still 5 ½ game back, chances of getting back in the race still looked bleak.
Interestingly enough, that was the day the Cardinals capped their one (and now certain to be only) 5-game winning streak of the season. The lead was down to 4 ½ games, and people started taking notice.
A lot of things had to go just right (including that sweep of the Braves in mid-September) to give the Cardinals a chance. Lose any of those three games, and the Cardinals would’ve been eliminated from the playoff race with Monday night’s extra-inning loss in Houston. But while things have gone just right enough to keep the Redbirds in it, the list isn’t finished yet.
First, we’ll take a look at what needs to happen over the next 3 days to get the Cardinals into post-season play, and then take a look at how the Divisional Series could play out.
The Cardinals, for the first time all season, will be in jeopardy of being eliminated from the playoff race. If Atlanta beats Philadelphia tonight and St. Louis falls to Houston, it’s over. So tonight, the Cardinals need to win, no questions asked. Jake Westbrook must bring his “A” game like he did last week against the Mets (we won’t talk about how that game ended). I would also argue that Atlanta must lose tonight to keep the Cardinals’ playoff hopes alive. Philadelphia, with 100 wins and nothing to play for, will most certainly rest the likes of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, et al during the season finale Wednesday… if for no other reason than to take one last look at some bench players who are on the post-season roster “bubble” if you will. And rumor has it that a couple of young pitchers will be sharing the workload for Philadelphia tomorrow, not Cole Hamels. So with that in mind, the Cardinals can’t rely on much help from Philadelphia after tonight. This is the night St. Louis must catch Atlanta, with Roy Oswalt going for the Phillies… and hopefully a full lineup of Philly bats to support him.
The Cardinals will send Chris Carpenter to the mound. We’ve already addressed what’s likely going to happen in Atlanta… so this hopefully will be a situation where the Cardinals are tied with the Braves coming in, and while it would be nice to get lucky and take the wild card outright, let’s not get too greedy. Cardinal Nation will gladly accept a 1-game playoff at home vs. the Braves.
This should be interesting. Both clubs will be throwing their respective aces on Wednesday, leaving a matchup of Kyle Lohse vs Brandon Beachy for the win-and-you’re-in game in St. Louis. Beachy has a 3.68 ERA this season, and has only faced the Cardinals once back on April 30th, a 3-2 Cardinals win in which he did not take the decision after giving up 2 runs through 7 innings. Beachy has struggled a bit down the stretch, giving up 4 runs in each of his last 3 starts while failing to pitch past the 6th inning each game. Lohse, meanwhile, did not face the Braves this season. He’d take a 3.39 ERA to the mound with him as well as a 3-game winning streak. He wasn’t taken a loss since August 23rd, right before the Cardinals went on their dramatic run for the playoffs.
The Cardinals, should they get in, would catch a bit of a break here with an extra off day before the NLDS Starts.
Games 1 and 2 at Philadelphia. Perennial Cy-Young Candidate Roy Halladay will take the mound for the Phillies Saturday. Edwin Jackson would likely take the hill for the Cardinals on schedule, though Jaime Garcia would be available on 3-days rest (and only went 4-innings last night, mind you) if Tony La Russa wanted to push it. At this point, I’d assume he’d go with the veteran Jackson, and let Jaime take game 2 vs Cliff Lee.
TUESDAY, Oct. 4th
With another off day Monday, Chris Carpenter will be able to go on full rest vs Cole Hamels in Game 3, a matchup that most would agree favors the Cardinals. If they can find a way to steal game 1 or 2, they’d be sitting pretty.
WEDNESDAY/THURSDAY… Oct 5th and Oct 6th
If Tony wanted to push it again, he could think about Jackson/Garcia on short rest, or take his pick between Lohse and Westbrook. One of these 4 would pitch Game 4, with either Jackson or Garcia pitching Game 5 if necessary.
At that point, the Cardinals would have their rotation set up correctly should they advance to the NLCS… with Carpenter available for game 1, and either Jackson/Garcia ready for game 2. Obviously getting way ahead of ourselves, but the LCS might be a final showdown with the Milwaukee Brewers… and wouldn’t that be something.
But for now, the Cardinals have a lot of work to do (and need some help). The stars need to align tonight, or the team and fans will spend a long winter looking back at about a dozen games that got away this season if they come up 1 win short.