The Cardinals have won eight games in a row, 12 of 14 in August, 15 of 19 overall, and six straight series. Their playoff odds, which per FanGraphs currently sits near 40 percent, has nearly quadrupled over the last eight to ten days and that’s been the most profound consequence of all this winning.
The Cardinals are now only one game out of the Wild Card race, and you can even see a scenario where they’re a threat to the NL Central if you squint just a little bit. Regarding the first part, I don’t know how many wins it will take to secure a Wild Card bid, but let’s settle on a clean number like 90. Obviously it could be more, could be less, but that would mean a 24-17 record the rest of the way. Not an easy task – there are only six games remaining against decidedly bad teams (Reds and Tigers) – but 23 games of the remaining 41 are also at home so there are a few built-in advantages, too.
Furthermore, after a three-game series with Milwaukee this weekend, the Cardinals head out west to play the currently-sort-of-woeful Dodgers where they’ll miss Clayton Kershaw, and then travel to Colorado to face a Rockies squad, who are neck and neck with the Cardinals in the Wild Card race but who are below .500 in both Pythagorean and BaseRuns record. I’m not going to call the Cardinals schedule easy, but reports of a murderer’s row are probably exaggerated.
As for winning the division, the final series of the season is a three-game set at Wrigley. The Cubs are currently four games ahead of the Cardinals. Play three games better than the Northsiders over the next six weeks and that becomes a very interesting series. Again, that's not easy. The Cubs probably have an easier schedule than the Cardinals the rest of the way but don’t confuse that with a cakewalk. This morning, Matthew Trueblood of Baseball Prospectus broke down a particularly challenging stretch coming up for the Cubs:
On Thursday evening, they begin a four-game series in Pittsburgh, trying to deal a final knockout punch to the staggering Pirates, who have lost four of five and are now further from the first-place Cubs than from the fifth-place Reds. After that series, Chicago will have a travel day ahead of a two-game series in Detroit. Beginning with those games, however, they’ll play on 23 straight days, in six different cities.
Included in that stretch will be an 11-game, four-city road trip that unfolds thusly:
A flight from Chicago (where the Cubs and Mets play on the afternoon of August 29) to Atlanta for a makeup game from a May washout;
A flight from Atlanta to Philadelphia for a weekend series;
A flight from Philadelphia to Milwaukee for three games, beginning with a day game on Labor Day;
A flight from Milwaukee back East, to Washington, for a four-game series; and
A flight home to begin a three-game series against the Brewers at Wrigley Field on the following Monday night
I won’t blame anyone who’s putting all of their eggs in the Wild Card basket right now. It makes sense. The Cardinals still have six games remaining with Milwaukee so that one game deficit seems almost negligible as compared to a four-game difference with the team that has been the best in the National League for most of the year. But the Cubs have a starting pitching problem, their offense has been sputtering as of late, and they’re only two games over .500 since the All-Star Break. Dare to dream, I say.
There’s more to this winning than just playoff stakes though. The last two weeks have not guaranteed the Cardinals a spot in the postseason, but it likely does give way to meaningful baseball late into September, and that’s important if your goal is to stay interested for 162 of these things. Everyone wants their team to win the World Series, short of that we ask that they be fun and remain interesting for as long as possible. The Cardinals haven’t been this much fun in mid-August since 2015, when they exploited every resource they had to hold off the surging Pirates and Cubs. And whether that was fun is up for debate. Exhausting might be a better word. Consider this a role reversal. The Cardinals are now the ones who are surging, the ones with much more to gain than lose. Might as well enjoy it.
Arguably, even better, there’s reason to be excited for the future beyond the next six weeks. Take a look at the young guys. Harrison Bader leads all rookies in MLB in WAR. Jack Flaherty leads all rookies with at least 80 innings pitched (sample: 12) in strikeout rate (30.2 percent) and is ninth in MLB overall. The tiny flashes we’ve seen from Tyler O’Neill have been impressive. Same with Daniel Poncedeleon, Austin Gomber, and Dakota Hudson.
As for the rest, Matt Carpenter is better than ever. Yadier Molina is basically playing like he’s in his mid-20s. The rotation, when healthy, is poised to be the deepest in the NL Central. If the Cardinals falter the rest of the way and the season comes to a close around the 83-86 win range, it won't feel like no-man’s land quite like it would have only a month ago. There’s a way forward with this group (what to do with Dexter Fowler, that I don’t know). Optimism that with a few tweaks this team will absolutely compete for the NL Central in 2019. And they arrived back at this point while still not posting a losing record since a couple of US Presidents ago.
I don’t know the root cause for all of this winning. It’s likely a combination of the post-Matheny bump, the new leadership and instruction from the likes of Mike Shildt and Mark Budaska, the reconstructed bullpen, and a forgiving part of the schedule. Or maybe it finally all came together and they're just, I dunno, really good? Whatever the case, even if the Cardinals don’t make the playoffs in 2018, the season has already been saved.