Love it or hate it, Major League Baseball’s addition of the second Wild Card in each league in an attempt to create more opportunity as well as more likelihood that multiple playoff races would exist every season seems to have worked. And without it, the St. Louis Cardinals would have very little to play for right now.
The Cincinnati Reds have an 11 game lead in the NL Central, and their Magic Number (combination of Reds wins and Cardinals losses) to clinch the division title is seven. They could very well have things wrapped up by this time next week. It would take a run of biblical proportions—bad on the Reds’ side; good on the Cards’ side—for the Redbirds to win the NL Central this year. A cakewalk compared to the 2011 run. It ain’t happening.
And without the extra playoff spot, the same might be said about the Wild Card. The Cardinals trail the Atlanta Braves by six in the loss column; not an insurmountable number, but a damn hard one to overcome with only 17 games to play. With the way the Cards have played this season, it’s tough to imagine them even coming close to pulling something like that off—especially with no head-to-head matchups against the Braves remaining. In 2011, the Cards pulled off a three game sweep of Atlanta in September that really fueled the idea that the Bravos just might be catchable. No such situation exists this year.
No, things are quite different in 2012 for the Cardinals. Coincidentally, they do happen to be in the midst of a huge series with Wild Card implications. This time, the closest foe is the Los Angeles Dodgers. And instead of being the chasers, the Cardinals are the chased. But injuries, streaky offense, and a questionable bullpen have kept the Cards from creating much separation at all between them and the teams on their heels. Even after the win on Thursday, no one expected the Cards to go into Dodger Stadium and sweep. Winning three out of four would be great, and getting a split would be acceptable. With each team winning a game going into action Saturday, things seem to be on track. But if the Cards drop the next two, they will find themselves out of a playoff spot.
And that’s just the implications with the Dodgers. The Pittsburgh Pirates have struggled mightily down the stretch, yet they’re still hanging around only three games back of the Cardinals. But the real threats seem to be the streaking Philadelphia Phillies (three games back) and Milwaukee Brewers (three and a half back). Neither the Cardinals nor the Dodgers can afford to drop many games, because the way those two teams are playing they’re liable to close quickly. Perhaps the Cardinals can take some solace in knowing their next nine games are against the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs. But they have plenty of business yet to take care of this weekend, with the thinnest of margins for error.
The system has created the possibility for this race to happen, and the Cardinals are currently leading the pack. But the teams chasing them certainly have no intention of letting up. It’s time the Redbirds put the pedal to the floor, before their wheels get yanked out from under them.