The Cardinals Entered Tuesday’s game 4 games out of the second Wild Card. How did they get here and what needs to happen now?
After the All-Star Break, the Cardinals were starting to, uh, walk their way out of the malaise of terrible that marked the first half of the season. That was reflected in their playoff odds which dipped, at times, below 3%.
That better play has turned into downright optimism. The Cardinals returned home from Pittsburgh and Kansas City the proud owners of a six-game road winning streak, with two sweeps. They have won eight of their last nine and sit at 61-56. They are 4 games out of the second Wild Card spot.
Ahead of them are the Reds and the Padres. Cincinnati feels catchable, sitting just 2.5 games ahead of the Cardinals. The Padres have slipped to 11 games out and third place in the NL West. They got Tatis Jr. back on Sunday and he pretty much made up two weeks of lost production in one 4-5, 2 HR explosion.
That’s who the Cardinals are now chasing.
The Cardinals started a series against the Brewers on Tuesday night. They won/lost and looked good/bad. Adam Wainwright was terrific/good/ok/bad and the offense did/did not score some runs. (I’m writing this on Monday. Sorry I can’t update the information.) The Brewers have continued to play well and have a likely insurmountable 10 game lead on the Cardinals entering the series.
Maybe you can see the problem? The Brewers are good and have a huge cushion. The Padres are also good and are expected to play well down the stretch. That shows up in the Cardinals’ playoff odds.
Despite solid-to-good play for more than a month since the Break, the Cardinals’ postseason chances have barely twitched. It took about a month for the Cardinals to climb to the lofty number of 4.2%. A little over three weeks later, which included a 6-game win streak, the Cardinals sport a 5.7% chance at extending their season. 5.1% of that is now Wild Card. They have a .6% chance at the division.
Optimism might be climbing. But playoff odds aren’t. Sorry to be a downer when Cards nation is feeling better but the number’s crunchers just don’t believe in this team. And they really believe in the Padres.
Hard to blame them.
About a month ago, I outlined an unlikely path for the Cardinals to put themselves into a position to challenge for the postseason. I went series by series, trying to see if it was even possible for the Cardinals to make a run at the Brewers. To do so, they would have to maintain a winning percentage of just under 70%. That’s a tall task. Except that the schedule makers were more than kind to St. Louis. After the All-Star break, the club faced a long stretch of not-very-good teams. This Brewers series was the first identifiable mile-marker on that path and a great place to reset and re-calibrate. How did the Cardinals do compared to my ridiculously optimistic projections?
The Cardinals entered their road trip starting July 23rd against the Reds and Indians at 49-48, having won two against the Cubs in Busch. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but the Cards needed to make up as much ground as possible on NL Central foes. I hoped for 3-2. The team struggled in Cincy and went 2-3 on the trip.
Projected record: 52-50
Actual record: 51-51
That brought the Cardinals back home, where they needed to make up ground. I said at the time that this homestand made me nervous, with Atlanta always playing the Cardinals tough and a Twins team that has underperformed but is still capable. That was followed by a Matheny-led Royals group that might be out to show the Cards up. That’s 9 games total and I said the club needed to go 6-3. That didn’t happen. They went 4-5. Ouch.
Projected record: 58-53
Actual record: 55-56
Already the team is well off my hoped-for pace. Doesn’t matter, though, because we know how well they did over the weekend! A six-game sweep surely pulled them back, right? Nope. I was very optimistic about that road trip: “Let’s go crazy and call that a sweep and a series win, 5-1,” I said. So, St. Louis will pick up a game on my projections.
Projected record: 63-54
Actual record: 61-56
And that illustrates the problems that the Cardinals have. They can play pretty well. Really well for long stretches – like sweeping a 6-game road trip. But they can’t win enough to make up much ground. The Cardinals have to play not just well, but brilliantly. For a long stretch of time. It will still take other teams – multiple other teams – performing significantly worse than the Cards to raise the team’s playoff odds.
Let’s keep going. The Brewers series looms as vital this week, but not in the way we originally expected. Even three weeks ago our minuscule playoff odds were still focused on the division. With that likely off the table, the Cardinals still need to beat the Brewers not to try to catch them but to keep pace with the Padres.
I have the Cardinals winning 2 of 3.
Then they have to kick things into high gear. The month ends with PIT and DET coming into town before road trips to PIT and CIN. Then they are back in Milwaukee. I have them going 9-5 over that span, ending with a 3-3 road trip against the Reds and Pirates. Their final record before that Brewers series would be 72-59.
To reach that lofty win total, the club has to pick up two games somewhere. Maybe with a sweep of the Brewers? Hmm… seems very doubtful. The best chance is probably turning that 3-3 month-ending trip into a 4-2 and finishing the month a game behind my optimism. That’s the best I can do.
Original Projected record: 72-59
Revised projected record: 71-60
So, no shock, but if the Cardinals want to turn this improved play into a more serious run at the playoffs, they have to play out-of-their-minds for the next few weeks. Even doing so just puts them 11 games over .500. The Padres are at 14 games over .500 today.
The Cardinals have Jack Flaherty back. Mikolas is set to return this week.
The Padres get the league MVP back in their lineup and he’s hot.
How many times have I said it already? That’s why their postseason odds are so low.
From there, the schedule becomes a nightmare:
Then they finish with 8 on the road and 6 at home, all against the Brewers and Cubs. Thankfully, the Cubs imploded their team, so they’ll have one easy team during the final few weeks.
The best part of the original projections was that the club played the Brewers a ton in September, giving them a chance to cut into the ground Milwaukee had on them. That logic doesn’t apply to the Padres. The Cards do play Tatis and company. At home. For three games. That’s it. That’s their shot to put a dent into San Diego’s World Series dreams. And it has to come surrounded by games against some of the best teams in the league.
So, the Cardinals still have a chance. More than they did a few weeks ago. They just have to keep doing what they’re doing. And do what they’re doing better than they’ve been doing it. And other teams have to stop doing what they’ve been doing and start doing worse things.
If things go well, we’ll reset this conversation again at the end of the month and take a hard look at matchups and possibilities for a September charge.