Winning Games and Spinning Wheels

The St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Chicago Cubs 9-6 Friday afternoon. It was the Cards’ fourth victory over the Cubs in the last eight days, and their seventh win in eight games. But as far as their position in the National League Central standings is concerned, the Cardinals have gone nowhere.

The Cincinnati Reds have a two game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Central, and the Cards find themselves five and a half games out of first place. In spite of the Cardinals’ stellar week-plus against the Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers, the “Last 10 Games” record of the top three teams in the division says it all: The Cards are 7-3, the Pirates are 8-2, and the Reds—in the midst of an eight-game winning streak—are 9-1. Now that’s stiff competition.

It also doesn’t help that while the Cardinals are playing the lowly Cubs this weekend, the Pirates are playing the even more lowly Houston Astros and the Reds are playing the equally lowly Colorado Rockies. So while the Cards do have to find a way to win at Wrigley Field no matter what—which isn’t an easy task, no matter how bad the Cubs are—they can expect little to no help from the teams playing their competition. The Cards are not likely to make up any ground this weekend…they just need to keep pace with the Pirates and Reds and hope for some luck.

But the Cardinals have been making their own luck lately as well. They still lead the National League in team batting, OPS, and runs scored. And the pitching has come back to the party with a vengeance. Lance Lynn’s five innings Friday marked the first time this month a Cardinals started failed to pitch at least six frames. And the bullpen was strong for the remaining four innings, highlighted by the Redbird debut of lefty Brian Fuentes—the newest Cardinal struck out two in his debut. The biggest pieces of the bullpen puzzle this year, however, have to be Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte. Boggs has 15 holds and an ERA under two; Motte has 23 saves and an ERA under three. It would seem the eighth and ninth innings are all but a lock when the Cards have a lead. The trick is, of course, getting there.

So what does all this mean? The Cardinals are playing great baseball but not moving up in the standings, and the non-waiver trade deadline is Tuesday. It’s a rough spot to be in. Winning without gaining ground can be frustrating, and the Cardinals obviously cannot afford to lose many games right now. But they don’t seem to have any glaring needs at the moment either. Players are moving, despite the new draft pick compensation rules. Where would a new acquisition fit? The bullpen is getting stronger…the rotation is getting stronger…the lineup is among the best in the league…and many of the bench players are starters on a lot of teams. The Cardinals could perhaps use a “presence” bat on the bench—someone always lurking should a big pinch hit spot come up late in the game. A team can never have too much pitching…but who gets displaced in the event of a trade? And Jaime Garcia is close to starting rehab; he could be back with the Cards in less than a month. Is that like making a trade?

Perhaps the best move is evaluating what happens over the next couple days with not only the Cards but the Reds and Pirates—both on the field and off. Reactionary moves are not necessarily a good idea, but if the other teams make major deals the Cards may have to think about keeping pace. But standing pat would not necessarily be a bad thing either. Continuing to win at a .700 clip will almost certainly get them to the postseason. And with an extra Wild Card berth, the likelihood goes up even more. But the Reds and Pirates don’t seem to be going away anytime soon, so the Cards have their work cut out for them…again.

The 2012 ride is just beginning.

Chris Reed also writes for InsideSTL Mondays and Bird Brained whenever he feels like it. Follow him on Twitter at @birdbrained.

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