St. Louis Cardinals season could be defined by upcoming road trip

The St. Louis Cardinals have embarked on one of their longest, and undoubtedly toughest, road trips of the season to face the Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds for 11 games in 10 days that will give the team a chance to measure itself against the National League’s best and give a preview of what type of competition the team will face in the playoffs.

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After three games Friday through Sunday against the Braves, the Cardinals will head to Pittsburgh for five games in four games, including a doubleheader to make up for a rainout April 16, and finish with three games the following weekend in Cincinnati.

The Cardinals were 10.5 games from falling out of a playoff spot as they began the first game of the trip Friday in Atlanta because of the two possible wild-card spots Major League Baseball introduced in 2012, so this road trip won’t determine whether or not they’ll make the playoffs, but it could help show how much success the team could have once it gets there.

The Braves, Pirates and Reds had a combined 176-129 record heading into play Friday, which is by far the best combined record the Cardinals will face at any point in the 2013 season. All three are likely headed toward the playoffs. The Braves lead the NL East by eight games over the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Pirates and Reds hold both of the NL wild-card spots.

This road trip will also give the Cardinals a chance to prove they can play with the best teams in baseball. So far, St. Louis has built its best record in baseball at 62-37 on the backs of losing teams. The Cardinals are 48-21 against teams with losing records and 14-16 against winning teams.

The Cardinals have a very good team, no doubt, but aside from various injuries and a first half with a schedule full of away games, the Cardinals have not had to face much adversity in the form of good teams that were on a roll when the Cardinals played them.

The Texas Rangers swept St. Louis June 21-13 at Busch Stadium, and the Oakland A’s took two of three from the Cardinals the next weekend in Oakland. Otherwise, the Cardinals had been fortunate to play teams in the middle of their own struggles.

The Los Angeles Dodgers were near closer to the bottom of the NL West than the top when the Cardinals won two of three May 24-26 in Los Angeles, and although the San Francisco Giants had not dropped to the bottom of that division when the Cardinals played them in April and May, the Cardinals’ 4-2 record against them doesn’t look as impressive now that the Giants are 46-55 and eight games behind the now first-place Dodgers.

The Cardinals played much of the rest of their early season schedule against losing teams such as the Chicago Cubs (10 games), Milwaukee Brewers (10 games), New York Mets (seven games) and Houston Astros (four games).

The Mets have the best record of those four teams at 46-53, 11 games out of a playoff spot, and none of those teams will try to add players at the trading deadline to make a push toward the playoffs.

So for the first time this season, the Cardinals will start to get a feel for what the competition will be when they reach October.

The Cardinals won’t be in danger of missing the playoffs based on this road trip even if they lose most of these 11 games, but this 10-day stretch will likely expose whether the Cardinals really should be favorites to win the World Series or if they are a team that has simply taken advantage of poor teams’ mistakes.

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