Well, here we go.
We’re in the home stretch of the home stretch — the final week of a crazy 162-game season that has brought more twists to the St. Louis Cardinals than a plate full of pretzels.
This team of major league neophytes — eight players have made their big league debuts this year — is threatening to break the two-year playoff drought that has had fans in a certifiable snit.
To finish the job, the Cardinals face a six-game sprint to the finish line, each of them against the teams that knocked them off their National League Central Division perch in the first place. It begins Monday with a three-game home series against the wild card-leading Milwaukee Brewers. After a day off Thursday, it’s off to Wrigley Field for a series with the Cubs that could very well settle the season.
We would be remiss if we did not pause to recognize the circumstances that have brought the Cardinals to this point.
Remember how the frustration threatened to boil over just ahead of the All-Star break? The team showed promise in April and May, but a 12-15 June followed by a pair of lackluster losses to the last-place Cincinnati Reds left the Redbirds just one game over .500 and forced the front office to throw in the towel on manager Mike Matheny.
It was hard to see the Cardinals going anywhere but home come October.
Then Mike Shilt took over with a reconfigured bullpen and an injection of youthful exuberance, courtesy their triple-A club in Memphis. What’s happened in the ensuing months has been invigorating, both to bored and impatient fans who have been spoiled by a tradition of autumn baseball in St. Louis, as well as for the team’s once-depressed clubhouse.
The renewed attitude has been one of both buoyancy and determination. These young Redbirds are enjoying the chase.
St. Louis went on a tear in August, winning 22 of 28 games and series against divisional and wildcard contenders, including both the Cubs and Brewers.
With their weekend sweep of the San Francisco Giants (a first since 1995), the Cardinals are well positioned to secure at least the National League’s second wildcard spot. They hold a 1 1/2-game advantage over the Colorado Rockies’ who are still chasing the Dodgers for the NL West crown.
Should likely starters Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber and John Gant achieve a sweep against the Brewers, the Cardinals would assume a one-game lead for the top wildcard spot, which comes with home-field advantage for the play-in game next Tuesday.
The division-leading Cubs, with their win over the cross-town White Sox Sunday, maintain a 4 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals in the Central. But with some help from the Pirates, who are in Chicago for four games this week, the Redbirds could conceivably arrive at Wrigley Friday with a chance to steal the division.
As we learned in 2011, all the Cardinals really have to do for a shot at their 20th NL pennant and 12th World Series championship is secure their current perch. Qualify first, then worry about postseason particulars. Their road is steeper than that of the other contenders. The Rockies have six left against the Philadelphia Phillies (78-77) and Washington Nationals (78-78); the Dodgers have the Arizona Diamondbacks (79-77) and Giants (72-84); and the Brewers close out the season with Detroit (63-93).
And let’s not forget the Cardinals’ collapse in more recent years. Headed into the final week of last season, they had fought to within 1 1/2 games of a playoff berth, only to lose six of their last eight games.
This year won’t be the same, no matter what happens over the next seven days. The likes of Flaugherty, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Dakota Hudson and others still provide ample cause for excitement about 2019 and beyond.
In the meantime, buckle up for this sprint to the finish. We’re in for a big week of baseball.