Here’s the Playoff Odds report from Baseball Prospectus as of 2 p.m. Monday, with focus on the NL Wild Card race:
New York Mets, 90.2%
San Francisco Giants, 68.2%
St. Louis Cardinals, 41%
The odds may be against the Cardinals, but this isn’t a dire situation. The Mets have the top wild-card position, leading the Giants by a game. The Cardinals, perched third in the competition for two spots, are a game behind the Giants.
In losing the first two of their four-game set at San Francisco the Cardinals were sliding toward the cliff’s edge. They suddenly trailed the Giants by three games in the lunge for the second wild-card entry. And a Giants’ sweep — which certainly seemed possible — would have left the Cardinals five games out with 13 games remaining on the schedule.
In other words: farewell for 2016. See you in Jupiter in early 2017.
And then on Saturday night … in an appropriate twist in their meshuga zig-zag season … the Cardinals hoisted themselves to safer ground with a two-run rally in the top of the ninth, overcoming a 2-1 deficit on an RBI single by Randal Grichuk, a sac fly from Kolten Wong, and a two-inning save from the eternally calm Seung Hwan Oh to seize a critical 3-2 win. Sunday afternoon Aledmys Diaz discharged a two-run homer, rookie starter Alex Reyes shut the Giants down (and out) for seven innings, and Kevin Siegrist and Oh reliably protected the lead in a 3-0 win that gave the Cards a series split.
Normally a 2-2 series draw would lead to a shrug of the shoulders — but not this time. Not after the slumping Cardinals were outscored 14-2 and staring at their demise following two losses to the Giants in 48 hours. The Cardinals were able to get out of San Francisco with their wild-card hopes intact.
And now the regular season is down to 13 games: three at Colorado over the next three nights … a Thursday off day … a three-game weekend series at Chicago … a return to St. Louis for the final week … four games vs. Cincinnati, and then three against Pittsburgh.
The Mets have the simplest, least challenging route to the postseason with 13 games against losing teams: three at home vs. Atlanta, four at home against Philadelphia, four at Miami, three at Philly. The Mets are also playing the best baseball, having won 20 of their last 27 games.
The Giants also have 13 games to go — and six will be against the 84-65 first-place Los Angeles Dodgers who lead them by five games in the NL West. It plays out this way: three at LA, four at San Diego, and a six-game home stand with three vs. Colorado and three against the Dodgers. The Giants have been unable to are shake off their dismal performance (22-37 record) since the All-Star break. Their second-half winning percentage (.373) is the poorest in the NL.
The Cardinals aren’t exactly surging. After taking the first two in a four-game series at Miami — only to lose the final two — the Cardinals are 22-24 since July 30.
For the Cardinals to make a late rush and rip a wild-card ticket from the Giants or Mets, here’s the list of assignments from the start of Monday night’s game at Coors Field in Denver to that final home game against the Pirates on Sunday, Oct. 2:
1. Cool down the Rockies, who have been crushing it at Coors Field: Forget the Rox overall 72-77 record and ignore their 32-42 mark away from Colorado. Entering Monday night, the Rockies have won 12 of their last 17 home games. In doing so, they’ve mauled visiting-team pitchers for an average of 7.1 runs per game, slugged .525, and batted .384 (with a 1.174 OPS) with runners in scoring position. This won’t be an easy yard for scheduled Cards’ starters Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright and Luke Weaver. But manager Mike Matheny has a 13-reliever bullpen on standby; the expanded September roster is built to handle the rigors — the horrors? — of Coors Field. The Cardinals still have MLB’s best road record (45-30) this season but have been rather human on the road (14-13) in their last 27 away from STL. The Birds must finish strong over the final seven games on this final road trip of the regular season. Heck, going into Coors might be just what the Cards’ slouching offense needs for a breakthrough.
2. Get it done, again, at Wrigley Field: in typically odd fashion a Cardinals team that lost all three home series to the Cubs this season is 5-2 at the Wrigley beer garden in 2016. Can the visitors annoy the team with the best record in baseball by winning another series on Chicago’s turf? Another question: will the Cubs — who have owned the NL Central since streaking to a 24-6 record in their first 30 games –be fired up to play their rivals when it’s more important to calibrate their pitching for the postseason?
3. Starting pitching. Always starting pitching: the Cardinals need to repeat, as many times as possible, the starts turned in by Mike Leake and Reyes in the final two wins at San Francisco: 13 innings, two earned runs, 1.38 ERA, two quality starts.
4. The St. Louis offense has gone quiet and must reanimate: small sample and all of that, but since cranking up five homers in a 9-7 win at Pittsburgh on Sept. 6, the Cardinals have averaged a puny 2.8 runs over their last 12 games. In winning only five of the 12 the Cardinals have batted .209 with a .274 OBP and .315 slug. And the slow-down includes a .208 batting average with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals’ fearsome home-run attack has powered down; they’ve hit only eight homers over this 12-game stretch. Since the All-Star break the Cardinals rank 19th in MLB in runs per game (4.21), 26th in batting average (.241), 26th in OBP (.308), and have the seventh-worst strikeout rate (23%). And their second-half average with runners in scoring position (.222) ranks 25th.
4a. Using the wRC+ offensive metric — with 100 being average — the Cardinals have a wRC+ of 83 in September; that ranks 23rd in the majors. And, as you can see, is 17 percent below league average. Not good. Here are some notable wRC+ September numbers for individual hitters:
Matt Carpenter, 87
Jhonny Peralta, 81
Matt Adams, 81
Stephen Piscotty, 77
Jedd Gyorko, 71
Jeremy Hazelbaker, 23 … (only 14 plate appearances)
Brandon Moss, minus 1 … (he’s batting .098 this month.)
Tommy Pham, minus 20 … (only 11 plate appearances.)
5. If Matt Carpenter has an ungodly hot streak in him, this is a great time for it. The Catalyst has been off form offensively since returning from the DL (and a strained oblique) on Aug. 5. In 166 plate appearances he’s batted .228 with a .307 OBP and .403 slug. During this down phase Carpenter has five homers, only eight RBIs and is 2 for 27 (.074) with runners in scoring position. Before the injury on July 6, Carpenter batted .298 with a .420 OBP and .568 slug and had a wRC+ of 162. Since coming off the DL he has an 88 wRC+ and his walk rate is 9% — down from his 16.5% walk rate before the All-Star break.
6. Matheny needs to make more use of effective hitters. Well, that is usually the way it works when a team is fighting to make the playoffs. That said, you don’t bail out on a hitter like Carpenter. I’m not suggesting that. We just gave you the worst wRC+ marks for the month so far. Here are some of the better wRC+ numbers for September: Grichuk 126, Yadier Molina 140, Wong 124, Diaz 136, and Greg Garcia at 202.
Over the past 30 days, Garcia has the team’s best wRC+ at 196 — but eight Cardinals have more plate appearances over that time. I’ve said it before, more than a few times, and I’ll throw this out there one more time: Garcia is a high OBP guy (.390), has the team’s best walk rate (15.4%) this season, and is a plus defender at three infield positions. For some reason, Garcia has started one time over the team’s last 14 games.
Bizarre. A manager of a team that is sinking in OBP, drawing fewer walks, and still playing mediocre defense won’t use a guy, Garcia, that can make a positive difference in those areas. (By the way: I’m not saying Garcia should be in the lineup every day; but it probably makes sense to start him more than once every two weeks. Wong is another example. He’s been one of the team’s best all-around players over the last two-plus months but has only 163 plate appearances — ninth among STL position players — since July 1. Mathenaging.
7. The young Cardinals must continue to show the way: with so many veterans struggling, some of the youngest Cardinals have come up big as of late including Grichuk, Wong, Diaz, Reyes, Weaver, Carlos Martinez, reliever Matthew Bowman. I don’t think the manager needed to call a pregame meeting in San Francisco to (in part) to remind the young Cardinals about what’s at stake.
8. For the final two weeks … PLEASE clean up the defense and base running.
9. The Cardinals can’t slip and slide against the three teams with losing records: Through Sunday, the Rockies were 72-77 overall, and have gone 18-24 in their last 42. The Reds were 63-86 and had lost 17 of their last 27. The Pirates were 74-75 and had fallen out of the wild-card race with a 12-17 stretch. But the Pirates are 9-7 vs. St. Louis this season. The Reds are 5-4 in their last nine against the Cardinals, outscoring the Cards 45-30 in those games. Needless to say the Cardinals can’t afford to be tripped and damaged in their nine remaining games against inferior teams. (Though in fairness, I already pointed out that the Rockies are tough to beat at home lately.)
10. How about some good luck? Yes, I’m serious. Randomness is a big part of baseball, and the Cardinals have a .278 average on balls in play since the All-Star break. That ranks 27th among the 30 teams and is 22 points below the MLB average. It isn’t too late for their batted-ball luck to improve.
That’s all I’ve got … if I left something out, feel free to add it in.
And please pardon my typos; I’m way behind schedule on taking my brief afternoon snooze.
Thanks for reading …