The St. Louis Cardinals entered the final two series of the 2012 regular season with something to play for: the Second Wild Card, which would assure them a one game playoff—the winner of which goes on to play in the NLDS against the playoff team with the best record. But what if the game was still being played under last year’s rules? What would the Cardinals be playing for in these final six games?
A whole lot of nothing, that’s what.
The Atlanta Braves clinched a playoff spot on September 25. The reason it’s only a playoff spot and not the Wild Card is because the Washington Nationals have not yet closed out the National League East Championship. Regardless, without the Second Wild Card, both teams would be in the postseason already no matter how they finish in the regular season standings. Aside from some seeding still to be determined, the playoff brackets would be full and the Cardinals would be on the outside looking in. Ironically, the one thing the Cardinals could do this weekend is help the Braves keep the door open to winning the NL East by beating the Nationals. That’s actually true with or without the Second Wild Card, but this season the Cardinals need the wins. Otherwise they would be relegated to the role of spoiler at best. And after what transpired at the end of the 2011 regular season, what an interesting discussion that would spark.
Imagine the questions that would surround the team without the opportunity in front of them: Was Mike Matheny the right guy for the job? How much can injuries be blamed for the Cards’ shortcomings? Did they need to spend the money on Carlos Beltran? Are they regretting letting Albert Pujols get away? Do you think Tony La Russa and/or Dave Duncan would come back? Should other coaches on the staff be let go? What does John Mozeliak need to do in the offseason to right the ship? When a champion comes back and falls woefully short the next year, these are the types of things people talk about. Some of those questions may get asked of the Cards in the offseason anyway. But the perspective and, consequently, the answers are so different between a playoff year and a non-playoff year.
Even the roster can be drastically affected. Perhaps the Cardinals would have shut down ailing players like Carlos Beltran or Matt Holliday for the season by now. Perhaps Chris Carpenter would not have come back at all, or the Cards would have taken a page from the Stephen Strasburg files and backed Adam Wainwright off in the interest of the long-term. After all, what would be the rationale for pushing these guys after elimination, knowing they are under contract for 2013? There would be none. And we’d probably be seeing even more players from the Cards’ system up with the big club.
Last year, one of the rallying cries was “11 in ‘11,” and the Cardinals did indeed win their 11th World Championship in 2011. It also took 11 wins to get there: three Division Series wins, four National League Championship Series wins, and four World Series wins. Naturally, the fan base turned their attention to longing for “12 in ‘12” before the confetti had even been swept up from the parade through downtown St. Louis last October. The funny thing is, without the need to win a 12th postseason game created by the Second Wild Card, the Cardinals would have no shot to fulfill that longing this season. And that would really trigger some what ifs.