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As the Cardinals Enter the Stretch Run, Let’s Look at Their Chances

The Cardinals are down to their final 22 games in the regular season.  A long campaign is down to the final push. But can the Cards extend their 2017 by making it to the NL playoffs?

Or will they miss the postseason and give their fans a silent and empty October for the second consecutive year?

If the Cardinals fail to qualify for the tournament again, it will be their first back-to-back miss since the 2007, 2008 seasons. Let’s not go back there.

We could use some autumn warmth, some baseball cheer.

The Cardinals have zig-zagged their way through the first 140 games. They’ve had more false starts than Greg Robinson, the Rams’ epic bust of a draft pick. The Cardinals have teased with tantalizing periods of good baseball, only to fade. And just when we’re ready to wave them off, the Cards reappear in the postseason picture.

Having completed a 7-3 road trip, and preparing to open a three-game weekend series against the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates, let’s peek at the pertinent standings:

In the NL Central the Cardinals and Brewers, both 72-68, are five games behind the first-place Cubs. And in a bid for the league’s second wild-card prize, the Brewers and Cardinals trail the Rockies by three games.

According to the Playoff Odds at Baseball Prospectus, the Cardinals have a  7.2 percent of winning the NL Central, and a 21.9 percent shot at the WC … which adds up to a 29.1 percent chance of reaching the postseason.

With the odds improved but still against them, how do the Cardinals get this done?

No. 1: The Cardinals must grind out a very good record against division rivals.

The Cardinals’ 22 remaining games will be played inside the NL Central. It will go like this, in chronological order: 3 vs. Pittsburgh at home, 3 vs. Cincinnati at home … then a 9-game trip with 3 at Chicago, 3 at Cincinnati and 3 at Pittsburgh … and that leads into the final week at Busch Stadium with 4 against Chicago and 3 vs. Milwaukee.

Here’s the problem: the Cardinals are a woeful 23-31 against the other NL Central residents. That’s so bad, even the last-place Reds have done better at 31-30. As of now, the Cardinals’  .426 division winning percentage would be the second-worst during 22 seasons of DeWitt franchise ownership; only the 1997 Cards (20-28, .417) were more futile in division play.

Yeah, the Cardinals have to kick some arse in the NL Central the rest of the way. And for what it’s worth, 13 of these final 22 games will be at Busch … including that final home stand of the regular season. Those final seven at home could be h-u-g-e.

No. 2: The Cardinals’ starting pitching is thriving again. That must continue. 

Adam Wainwright made his last start on Aug. 17 before going on the DL with an elbow injury. Mike Leake made his last start for the Cards on Aug. 26, and was traded to Seattle on Aug. 30. In their eight combined starts for the Cardinals in August,  Wainwright and Leake were assaulted for 34 earned runs in 36.1 innings for an 8.42 ERA. Only one of the eight starts went into the file as a Quality Start. That’s just brutal.

But in the 11 games played since Wainwright and Leake were out of the rotation, Cardinals’ starters have become an asset again. Go ahead and alert the small-sample police, but in the 11 games Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha and rookies Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty have combined for seven quality starts and a 2.60 ERA. And if you give the 21-year-old Flaherty a mulligan for his first big-league start — he was much better the second time — the five Cards’ starters have seven quality starts and a 2.06 ERA in 10 games.

I don’t know when or if Wainwright will return, but if this rotation is still humming along and cranking out consistently solid starts … well, you know the rest. It would be absolutely loony to mess with that. But there’s no reason to assume anything until we get closer to a Waino comeback — if there is one in 2017.  That said, Flaherty is also limited by an unofficial innings-pitched cap, and the Cardinals may have him skip a start or two. So we’re not sure what to expect from the Waino/Flaherty spot in the rotation. But it doesn’t matter who is pitching; this applies to all starters: the Cardinals can’t afford a rotation collapse. Or even a rotation relapse.

No. 3 : The offense has regenerated since the All-Star break, but new concerns are popping up. 

Since the All-Star break the Cardinals rank third in the NL in runs per game and only the Cubs — at 19 percent above league average — have outperformed the Cardinals offensively (14 percent above average) in park-adjusted runs created for the second half. But some potentially bothersome developments could decrease the run production.

— Rookie shortstop Paul DeJong  may  be wearing down a bit; he is batting .208 with a .260 OBP and .319 slug (for a .579 OPS) since Aug. 20. Over that time, DeJong has homered once in 72 at-bats.

— Outfielder Tommy Pham has missed a few games with a sore shoulder. As the team’s best all-around hitter (and top all-around player) Pham is vital to the success of the STL offense. The Cardinals not only need him in the lineup — but this team needs the Phamtastic one to be fully healthy and capable of igniting the offense with his potent OBP-SLG combination and his speed.

— Dexter Fowler’s consistent lineup presence has been interrupted, several times, by injuries. And that’s too bad considering his .358 OBP and .474 SLG for the season. These injuries have slowed Fowler down defensively. Already a poor center fielder,  Fowler is  really  struggling to cover ground out there; manager Mike Matheny apparently won’t consider moving him to a corner OF spot.

— Matt Carpenter has been dealing with a sore shoulder for quite a while before finally shutting it down during the road trip to rest and receive a cortisone injection that should help. But when Carpenter  returns to the lineup, which should happen this weekend, we have to wonder about his effectiveness. Carpenter’s an excellent onbase skill as a leadoff man are extremely important to this offense. But his numbers have been dropping.

Keeping in mind that Carpenter wasn’t moved back to his familiar No. 1 spot atop the lineup until June 7, here’s a break down of his leadoff-man-only numbers:

1st half,  138  plate appearances:   .438 onbase percentage, .543 slugging percentage, .981 OPS. And Carpenter’s park-adjusted runs created (155 wRC+) put him 55 percent above the league average offensively.

2nd half,  178 plate appearances:  .382 OBP, .426 SLG, .808 OPS. That’s still pretty good … very good, actually, for the OBP. But the numbers are still down including a second-half park-adjusted runs created figure that’s 20 percent above league average.  Since Aug. 1 Carpenter’s slugging percentage is drooping at .398.

— Second baseman Kolten Wong was having his best MLB season until heading off to the trainer’s room, again, this time with a tight back.

No. 4: Of course there are other factors. The manager, for example

After reworking bullpen roles to produce better results, Matheny has to stay on top of it to make sure his best relievers are being used at the most crucial times. Depending on player health or fatigue, Matheny has to play his best position players when possible. With the season down to 22 games, this is no time to make decisions based on Mike’s Guys Preferred Member Status. Matheny has done better with this as of late, and that’s good, but in the words of Herm Edwards: You play to win the game.

No. 5: Fundamental baseball. Defense and base running. Sharp or Sloppy?

That’s been a persistent question all season. Will the Cardinals clean up their clutter and confusion and play smarter ball? There have been modest improvements. For much of the season the Cardinals were guilty of having the most runners lost on the bases (unforced) among the 32 teams. Now, with 99 runners lost on unforced errors, the Cardinals are the fourth-worst MLB team in squandering outs on the base paths. The Cardinals are barely above average in overall park-adjusted defensive efficiency, and they’re ranked 18th in fly-ball defensive efficiency.  But their ground-ball defensive efficiency is is the 10th-best in the majors.

At least there’s a race.

Suspenseful baseball is fun baseball.

Thanks for reading and have a great weekend…

-Bernie

More: Can the Cardinals Catch the Rockies and Brewers and Snatch a Wild-Card Ticket? Yes.