I don't know whether to be impressed or terrified by how close the St. Louis Cardinals are cutting things in their quest to win the National League Central Division title.
They tried like crazy to blow a four-run lead late in their Saturday game with the Colorado Rockies, the worst team in the National League. The Redbirds allowed three runs in the ninth inning and had the tying run on base when they finally were able to wiggle off the hook against a team with a .399 winning percentage. You just can't afford to lose games like that.
A loss is a scary proposition not only for one game, but also in the bigger picture of the series. St. Louis is forced to start rookie pitcher Marco Gonzales in the Colorado series finale Sunday. That would have put the Birds in a spot where they could easily lose two of three in a series they absolutely needed to win.
Gonzales has all of four starts under his belt and is 2-2 with a 5.01 ERA in the major leagues. He will face Jordan Lyles, a fourth-year pitcher who has been pretty good in two of his last three starts for Colorado.
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Lyles, 6-2 with a 4.20 ERA, got no decision despite throwing six innings of three-hit ball against the New York Mets his last time out. He allowed one run and struck out four and walked two. On Aug. 28 he lost in San Francisco to the Giants despite allowing four hits over six frames. In between, however, the Giants beat Lyles soundly in New York, tagging him for six runs on eight hits in 6 1/3
Gonzales is a capable young pitcher. But it's a lot of weight to put on his shoulders to pitch a key game in the final kick of of the pennant race. The Birds were fortunate to win Saturday -- and to see both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers to give them an extra game of cushion. If they would have allowed just one more hit, they could have lost their game. And if they lost the game Gonzales would have to pitch Sunday trying to avoid a disastrous series loss to a terrible team. It would be difficult to recover from that.
Certainly, the Cardinals need to win every game they can at this point. But they're in a position where the worst case is that they'll be no worse off at the end of Sunday than they were at the beginning of Friday. A win Sunday would be icing on the cake. But if they would have lost Saturday, they would have been in a spot where they could see their lead shrink to a game and a half if Gonzales can't steal a win in the finale.
The bright side is that games continue to disappear from the schedule, limiting pursuers' chances to catch up. But, until the Cardinals can put things away they're still one bad series of seeing their whole season go down the tubes.
And that's a scary thought with three games against the Brewers and three games against the Reds next week. The Brewers are still on the edge of division contention and are fighting for a wild card spot while the Reds would like nothing better than to take a bite out of their division rivals from St. Louis.