The St. Louis Cardinals will be the National League Central Division champions as they enter the playoffs, but where they begin the postseason is still an important mystery.
The Cardinals took a one-half-game lead over the Atlanta Braves for the best record in the National League into play Thursday when the Braves face the Philadelphia Phillies while the Cardinals wait to begin their final three-game series of the season at Busch Stadium against the Chicago Cubs.
As was the case in the Cardinals’ World Series championship season of 2011, they will face the worst team in the NL Central while the Braves play the Phillies. However, the Cardinals played the Houston Astros to close that season, and the Cardinals and Braves were fighting just to make the playoffs in 2011.
Now they are competing for the best record in the National League, which would guarantee them home-field advantage through the National League Championship Series.
The Cardinals don’t have Chris Carpenter to send to the mound in the final game of the season as they did two years ago, but they still have one of the best pitchers in the league ready to go in the final series, if necessary.
But here’s the thing. It is not necessary.
The Cardinals could pitch Adam Wainwright on Saturday, which would be his regularly scheduled day to start, or they could hold him back until Sunday if they need a win on the final day of the season to clinch the best record in the league.
However, if he pitches Sunday, that would put him on short rest to start Game 1 of the National League Division Series, and the Cardinals would almost certainly push him back to Game 2.
A third option would be to shut Wainwright down until the playoffs regardless, but that opens up a problem of too much rest if he goes from Monday until next Thursday between starts.
He will instead probably pitch Saturday or Sunday, and at this point Saturday would be the much better option.
Sure, the Cardinals might lost home-field advantage in the NLCS if they don’t win enough games against the Cubs this weekend, but with a playoff spot already in hand, the Cardinals would be more prudent to maximize their strategic advantages for the first round of the playoffs because there is no guarantee they will even make it the next round and be able to use what would be their home-field advantage.
At this point, Wainwright in Game 1 of the division series is more important than Wainwright on Sunday against the Cubs.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny can still use Wainwright on Saturday and then use a pitcher such as rookie Michael Wacha on Sunday. That setup would still give the Cardinals a legitimate chance to win and gain home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs, but it would more importantly position Wainwright to pitch the first game of the playoffs.
Plus, a winning performance from Wainwright against the Cubs is far from certain. Wainwright has struggled against the Cubs more than any team throughout his career outside of the Atlanta Braves, which would arouse another whole set of questions for later in the playoffs.
Anyway, Wainwright as a career 4.44 earned-run average and a 7-6 record through the seven full seasons he has pitched in Major League Baseball.
So a win from Wainwright on Saturday and Sunday is not nearly as likely as one might first assume, even though the Cardinals are 28 games better than the Cubs heading into play Friday.
The Cardinals would be smart to let Wainwright pitch Saturday on normal rest and be ready for Game 1 of the playoffs instead of having him pitch Sunday and risk losing that game while also losing him until Game 2 of the division series.