The St. Louis Cardinals have spent seemingly endless weeks playing inconsistent baseball that keeps the team from moving out of its third-place slot in the National League Central Division. The next two weeks will likely decide whether or not that is where they finish the season.
Following their weekend series against the Pittsburgh Pirates and a day off Monday, the Cardinals embark on a 13-game stretch against four teams, three of which have winning records.
The Cardinals will get a three-game home series against the Houston Astros as an opportunity to build some collateral before they head out on a three-city road trip to play the Cincinnati Reds, Pirates and Washington Nationals.
The Reds and Pirates are the Cardinals two competitors for the NL Central this season, and the Reds might have the division title already locked up. They led the Pirates by 7.5 games and the Cardinals by 8.5 heading into play Sunday.
That means the Pirates and Cardinals are likely left to battle for the second wild-card spot behind the Atlanta Braves. The Pirates held a one-game lead over the Cardinals heading into play Sunday.
The Cardinals have a relatively easy September schedule. After the series in Washington, the Cardinals play just two series against teams with a winning record. They head to Los Angeles to play the Dodgers for four games Sept. 13-16 and finish the season with a homestand against the Nationals and Reds.
All of that means the Cardinals could finish the season strong, but the next two weeks will likely determine whether or not they are within shouting distance for those wins against bad teams to matter.
The Cardinals have struggled against good teams this season. They had a 25-26 against teams currently with a winning record heading into play Sunday. They will have to play at least .500 against the Reds, Pirates and Nationals in the next two weeks to remain in strong wild-card contention, and they will have to do a lot better if they still want a shot at the NL Central title.
Unfortunately, this team currently doesn’t show any signs that it will go on a sustained winning streak anytime soon. The Cardinals can play wonderful baseball for two nights, as they did Tuesday and Wednesday against the Arizona Diamondbacks, but then they look like a team that doesn’t know how to win the next two nights, losing 2-1 to the Diamondbacks and Pirates.
That inconsistency is going to have to stop at some point. Even if the Pirates fade in September, the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants are both good teams and could easily take the second wild-card spot.
Overall, the Cardinals starting pitching has been superb. They now have four pitchers with more than 11 wins, including Adam Wainwright with 11, Lance Lynn with 13, and Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook with 12.
But, as has been the case the entire season, the bullpen to be better and the offense has to be more consistent. Jason Motte was the latest to implode. He has been a reliable closer this year, but he single-handedly gave away Thursday’s game against the Diamondbacks by allowing back-to-back solo homeruns in the ninth. He also nearly lost Saturday’s game against the Pirates, who had the tying run on third base when the Cardinals got the final out.
The Cardinals’ offense has the highest batting average, .274, of any National League team, but they still go through stretches when they can’t score more than one or two runs in consecutive games. Even though the Cardinals won 5-4 Saturday against the Pirates, they still left eight men on base. That isn’t going to work against the good teams up next on the schedule.
Every part of the team is going to have to be consistently productive in the next two weeks if the Cardinals want a chance to have an exciting rather than excruciating final month of the season.