...And exhale. Game over. Cardinals won. Although it had all the ingredients of something awful. A brilliant start by Jack Flaherty, an offense that was lively enough to put runners on the bases several times against arch-nemesis Kyle Hendricks - and some of them even scored! - but it all was meant to be spoiled by whatever demons exist in that ivy. That place is impervious to comfort. So of course after trailing most of the game, the Cubs rallied to score three and knot things up in the 9th. Of course they did. And had a diving Tommy Edman not kept Jason Heyward's grounder in the infield, that might have been it. The Cardinals escaped to extra-innings though so we were left to assume the same horrible outcome with less sleep as the added insult. Even Matt Carpenter's go-back-ahead home run in the top of the 10th, while undeniably great, had just a tiny bit of "Josh Hamilton hits a two-run home run in the top of the 10th to put the Rangers back on top" feel to it. But it was all paranoia and everything turned out fine like it so often does.
Not that last night was even in the ballpark of an elimination World Series game. But it definitely mattered. It felt like the closest thing to a playoff game that this franchise has participated in since they were actually in the playoffs. And the Cardinals won. At Wrigley. Even after the Cubs fought back like they've done so many times. This is the "things are great, then they're horrible, then they're great again" thing I was talking about on Monday. Sunday was rough. Last night was great. We'll see what happens this day and the next. I's not over yet, but this is fun. Let's go.
Nine games to go
Nine games left in the season, and the Cardinals cling to a three game lead in the NL Central. A lot has been made of the fact that they are finishing their season with seven of their final ten games against their rival, the Cubs, who, after last night's game, sit remarkably in third place because this odd Brewers team just keeps on winning. But forget the Cubs for a second. With all of the division titles the Cardinals have won over the years, I was curious where they stood at this point in past championship seasons, so I looked at the standings after Game 153 of every season in which the Cardinals won a division title in the Wild Card era, and this is what we have.
1996: 5 game lead over the Astros
2000: 11 game lead over the Reds
2001 (I don't are what you say, it counts): 3.5 games behind the Astros
2002: 9.5 game lead over the Astros
2004: 14 game lead over the Cubs
2005: 12.5 game lead over the Astros
2006: 4.5 game lead over the Astros
2009: 10 game lead over the Cubs
2013: 1 game lead over the Pirates
2014: 2.5 game lead over the Pirates
2015: 4 game lead over the Pirates
Only in 2001, when they were technically the wild card, were they behind at this point in the season. That doesn't surprise me, I guess, they've had a lot of near wire-to-wire division titles over the years, but you would have thought there would be at least one instance in which they stormed back to take sole possession of the top spot in the final week.
There are some surprises though. First, 2004. I would have assumed they had a 30-game lead but you have to remember that the Cubs were coming off a near-miss at the World Series and were still a very solid club. They were also dysfunctional, that was Sammy Sosa's last season on the North side and he famously bailed on the team before the season was completely over. Ask almost any Cubs fan and they'll tell you that the 2004 Cubs are their least favorite team (although the 2019 version is giving them a run). The Cardinals finished that year with a 13-game cushion over the Astros, who won 92 games and fought the Cardinals in that season's NLCS until the bitter end. And that's another thing to remember about the 2004 Cardinals: They pounded their way to 105 wins - still the most in the NL since the '86 Mets - when the NL Central was pretty tough.
The other surprise is 2013. That was a dominant team that seemingly scored at will, and I had forgotten it was that close with Pittsburgh down the stretch. Luckily, the Cardinals won eight of their final nine games and were up three when all was said and done.
Winning eight of nine would certainly suffice this year. Or, just win a few more of these games against the Cubs and all should be fine.
Kolten Wong and the stolen base
Before last night's game I had this idea to look at prolific yet efficient base stealers for the Cardinals. Guys who have been caught three or fewer times. Because Wong was a member of this club entering last night - 24 stolen bases, caught only three times - but then he got nailed trying to take second in the 1st inning, and worse, left the game later with a left hamstring injury. Not good. Hopefully somehow, some way, it's not as bad as it sounds, but when we're talking hamstring injuries, that's rarely the case.
Regardless, here are the top members of that list going back to 1947, as sorted by most stolen bases (because of the late update, just pretend Wong isn't there):
Hey, if we had lowered the threshold to only being caught two times then Albert Pujols would be the surprising leader. Still, we uncovered another interesting thing about Tommy Herr's 1985 season: He was pretty good at stealing bases! The other curious detail about Herr's '85 season, of course, is that he drove in the second most runs in a season in the modern era for players who hit fewer than ten home runs. He hit eight dingers and somehow found his way to 110 RBIs. He also typically hit in the third spot behind Willie McGee, who batted .353 that year so he was likely gifted a lot of runners on base.
And, if curious, Paul Molitor is first on this list with 113 RBIs in 1996 while hitting only nine home runs.
One last thing...
Here's a very non-Cardinals thing I'm keeping my eye on: The Phillies run differential. They lost last night to the Braves 5-4 to bring it to -4 on the season even though they are on the cusp of their first winning record since 2011 (they currently sit at 78-73). Why is this important? Because for their history, that franchise has a NEGATIVE 6,512 run differential. I don't know how a team manages to get outscored by a tune of 6,512 runs other than getting beat many, many times in many different ways for many, many years. But I'm invested and I want this thing to grow and grow. Let's set a goal of -7,000 by 2025.
That's all I have. Normally I like to highlight some solid written words online on this here sport but I'm tired after watching that game and I'm going to bed. Go Cardinals. You're almost there.
Credit to Baseball Reference's Play Index for a lot of the stats in this post. Also, I hope you like that cover art as much as I do. That's @cardinalsgifs work, of course.