September 1, 2003. The Cardinals sit atop a tough NL Central race, leading the Astros by just 1 game while the Cubs sit just 2.5 games back. The Cardinals head into Chicago for a 5 game series to be played in 4 days. The 2 teams will be playing a doubleheader on day 2 of the series to make up a game that was rained out back in May. Clearly it’s an important series for both teams while the Astros are beginning a series in Los Angeles against the 2nd place Dodgers. The Cardinals enter Chicago in 1st place in the division and will leave the Windy City 4 days later in 3rd place. The Cardinals proceeded to go just 13-13 in September and would finish the season at 85-77, 3rd in the NL Central. The Cubs would go on to the NLCS and we all know what happened there.
Fast forward 15 years and the Cardinals will once again visit Chicago to play 5 games in 4 games. Once again, these games are crucial to the Cardinals’ playoff hopes. The calendar may not suggest the games are as important as they were in September, 2003, but with the Cardinals already sitting in 3rd place and 7.5 games back of the Cubs, and with the trade deadline less than 2 weeks away, if the Cardinals plan to make a playoff run, it’s got to begin right now.
In that September series 15 years ago, both teams sent their respective aces to the mound in game 1 – Woody Williams against Mark Prior. The Cubs, of course, were holding a pair of aces in Prior and Kerry Wood and our ace, Williams, wasn’t as highly regarded but he had been fantastic since becoming a Cardinal 2 years before. Well, Prior shut out the Cardinals and the Cubs put a 6-spot on Williams in the 5th inning and the Cardinals’ 1 game lead over the Cubs was gone.
The next day brought a double-header and the Cardinals managed to grab a split but that win in game 2 would be the last win of the series for the Cardinals. In game 4 of the series, the Cubs scored 2 in the bottom of the 8th – the last one off Williams in relief this time – to beat the Cardinals 8-7. Tony LaRussa, in a move that even Mike Matheny wouldn’t make, brought Woody Williams in relief in the 8th inning 2 days after throwing 112 pitches and Williams took his 2nd loss of the series. (As an aside, it’s interesting to look back on that game – a game in which Mike Matheny was catching and LaRussa double-switched Williams into the game in place of his cleanup hitter – and compare it to some of the mistakes that Matheny made as manager, such as the infamous playoff game in which Matheny used Michael Wacha in relief.)
In game 5, the Cubs scored 1 in the bottom of the 7th to break a 6-all tie and the Cubs would take 4 of the 5 games in the series. The Cards’ pen would lose 3 of those 4 games. This series would prove to be the beginning of the end for the Cardinals in 2003. The Cubs and Astros played well in September and the Cardinals didn’t and ended up in 3rd place.
Though their positions in the standings are reversed this year, this series is no less important for the Cardinals’ playoff chances. According to fangraphs, the Cardinals presently have a 24% chance of making the playoffs but, in order to do so, they’re going to have to play much better than they have been playing and that needs to start now. If the Cubs draw a straight flush with these 5 games and the Cards draw nothing but a Jack-high, it may be all over before the calendar turns to August. The Cardinals’ playoff chances didn’t end when they lost that hand to the Cubs in 2003, but it sent the team into a relative tailspin that pushed them out of the playoffs. This series could be as determinative.
If the team ends up taking just 1 of the 5, there’s a pretty decent chance that the team becomes sellers at the trade deadline, effectively ending their shot at the playoffs in 2018. Now, there’s a discussion to be had that something like that might actually be better for the organization in the long-term but the players on the team now, and certainly Mike Shildt, want to play well and make a postseason run this year.
It’s rare that a July series is a pivotal one and a 3-2 or 2-3 split would probably end up being relatively inconsequential in terms of the playoff race. But if the Cards push their chips in again and end up getting steamrolled as they did in 2003, that could again become the beginning of the end. On the other hand, the team can really send a message to themselves, the Cubs, the rest of the National League, and Cardinals’ fans by coming out and playing well over the next 4 days. Maybe instead of drawing a bunch of random cards this time, the Cards can manage to come up with a full house, an inside straight, and 3 aces.
The Cards are going to send their ace, Carlos Martinez, out in game 1, much as they did in 2003. Hopefully, the Cards will show up better in 2018 than they did 15 years ago.
Thanks to @cardinalsgifs for that fantastic pic of Martinez and Williams.
Thanks to baseball-reference and fangraphs for the info and thanks to all of you for reading.