St. Louis Cardinals

Wild card? Cardinals need to focus on taking the NL Central from Cubs, Brewers

Marcell Ozuna, acquired via trade last season, will be paid $12.25 million in 2019.
Marcell Ozuna, acquired via trade last season, will be paid $12.25 million in 2019. AP

Three weeks left. Eighteen games to go. A playoff berth there for the taking.

Can the St. Louis Cardinals use that time to do better than gain a wild-card ticket to the postseason?

Because that ticket contains what could be an early expiration date. Very, very early – as in a guarantee of just one more game than all the teams that fell short of the playoffs this season.

To sum up: Better for the Cardinals to spend the next three weeks focused on passing Milwaukee and overtaking the Chicago for the National League Central title, even if they are 3 ½ games behind the Baby Bears at this point.

Think how close the race would be if the Cardinals hadn’t stumbled in two series this month against Cincinnati and Detroit, a combined 47 games under .500. But each of those ragtag teams won two of three against St. Louis the last two weekends, keeping too much distance between the Cards and Cubs as they near mid-September.

The Redbirds are one of two frontrunners for a wild-card berth, but they shouldn’t be happy to settle for that. Not with baseball’s current rules for the wild card game: One (count ‘em, one) game — an all-hands-on-deck, winner-take-all, way-too-short nine-inning exercise – that could end the Cardinals’ Lazarus-come-to-life season much, much too quickly.

By winning the NL Central, the Cards would guarantee themselves a best-three-of-five divisional playoff series. By winning a wild card berth, the Cards would guarantee themselves just one more game.

That’s not sufficient for a team that has had the best record in the NL since the All-Star Break, only to see it come to an all-too-abrupt end if things go poorly in the wild card game.

By the numbers, here’s an exploration of the wild-card picture for the Cardinals:

1 – As stated above, the number of wild card games that will be played in the NL this season.

Should the two wild card teams’ long, long journey to October – begun with drills and intrasquad games in February, then 35 games in Florida, then 162 games through the cold of spring, the heat of summer and the lengthening shadows of fall — end in one three-hour span?

Of course not, but that’s how baseball has structured its postseason: A wild card play-in game, the as-many-as-five-games division series in the divisional round, and two best four-of-seven series in the pennant series and World Series.

All the more reason to win now, just to avoid that one-game threat to a long postseason run.

2 – The number of teams set to qualify as wild entrants – at this point, the Milwaukee Brewers and Cardinals.

If the standings don’t change between now and the last game of the regular season on Sept. 30, the Brewers would play host to the Redbirds in the wild card game Oct. 2 or 3.

3 – The other NL teams within reasonable reach of the Brewers and Cardinals in the wild card race – the Los Angeles Dodgers, one game behind the Cardinals; Arizona Diamondbacks, three games back; and Philadelphia, 4 ½ games behind the Redbirds.

3.5 – The Cubs’ lead over the Cardinals in the division, with Milwaukee sitting one game behind the Cubs and 2 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals.

With three games against the Brewers and three more against the Cubs in the last week of the season, the Cardinals will have a hand in the final Central standings. But if they want to stand atop that list, they’ll need to climb closer the next two weeks.

4 – This would be the fourth time the Cardinals have achieved wild card status. They won the wild card berth twice, in 2001 and 2011, in the days before a second wild card entrant was added to the postseason. And they won the one-game wild card play in game over the Atlanta Braves in 2012, the first time the expanded wild card format was used.

The 2001 team lost to Arizona in the division series that year, and of course the 2011 team won the World Series under Tony La Russa. In 2012, Mike Matheny’s first as manager, they lost to the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS.

5 – The number of teams the Cardinals will play before meeting the Cubs the final weekend of the season. Those clubs – Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Francisco and Milwaukee – were a combined 39 games over .500, at 380-341

That win-loss record includes two losing club left on the schedule – the Giants, at 68-77, and the 71-72 Pirates. Still, the Cardinals face a daunting challenge ahead.

One fact in their favor: Thirteen of the remaining 18 games will be at Busch Stadium, where the Redbirds have gone 12-5 since Mike Shildt took over as manager the day before the All-Star Break.

6 – The number of division winners in the NL and AL that don’t have to mess with the wild-card game: The Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros in the AL, and the Cubs, Braves, and Colorado Rockies in the NL.

Ironically, both the Brewers (83 wins) and Cardinals (80 wins) have as many or more wins than the NL East-leading Braves (80 wins) or the NL West-leading Rockies (79 wins).

Doesn’t matter: The winner of the wild card game – even if it winds up with a better record than those two division champs – will get the division titlist with the best record, in this case the Cubs (83 wins).

All the more reason for the Cardinals to get past the Brewers and Cubs in the NL Central, if they can. That way, they’d face the wild card entrant in the playoffs, instead of the NL team with the best record.

7 – The minimum number of off-days (ostensibly, for travel) that teams will have in the first three rounds of the playoffs this fall – from the wild card game through the end of the league championship series. That doesn’t include the off days before the wild card game or the two off days in the middle of the World Series.

There lies the solution to the unfair nature of a one-game wild card play-in game.

That game should be expanded to a three-game series, starting for both leagues the Monday after the end of the regular season on Sunday.

How to fit that in? Erase some of the sham off days in the midst of divisional or league championship series. Does anyone think the Brewers and Cubs will need off days for travel if they meet in the divisional series? Or that the Diamondbacks and Braves couldn’t use, say, jet aircraft to make it from one city to the other for a next-night resumption of their series?

As Earl Weaver once said: “This ain’t a football game. We do this every day.”

Baseball – which plays the lion’s share of its regular-season games with only a couple days off a month — also could lose a couple of “travel days” in October to produce a more fair wild card system.

Until that happens, the Cards should steer clear by focusing on the division title instead of a side door entrance to the postseason.

Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985.