Cheap Seats

Don’t pinch me — Cardinals stay hot with wins over Cubs as Sierra’s dream debut continues

A sweep would have been nice.

But St. Louis Cardinals fans had to be more than satisfied with the fact that the home team took two of three weekend games against the Chicago Cubs.

The Redbirds, winners of eight of their last nine games, dropped the opener of the Cubs matchup in an offensive clunker — and I’m sure I wasn’t the only fan who wondered for a few hours if the magic the team captured while winning six straight road games had disappeared. After all, how long could reserve outfielder Tommy Pham and rookie phenom Magneuris Sierra continue to carry the team with their offensive exploits?

While they could disappear from the radar as quickly as they arrived to turn around a scuffling team, it turns out they had a few tricks up their sleeves and they helped the Cardinals to impressive wins Saturday and Sunday to keep the fire burning.

As a result, the Cardinals have streaked out to a 3 1/2-game lead over Chicago in the National League Central Division race. The teams looked like they have swapped uniforms since last year when the Redbirds were in the .500 doldrums and the Cubs were propelled by an infusion of youthful talent and enthusiasm.

Imagine what the Cardinals could do if they get reliever Brett Cecil figured out.

Still, starting center fielder Dexter Fowler continues to work his way back in the lineup after suffering a shoulder injury. Meanwhile, starting corner outfielder Stephen Piscotty is nearing his return from the disabled list after what the team said was an extremely mild hamstring strain. So the question remains how much longer Pham and Sierra will be able to hold on to playing time, much less a roster spot.

I hope the Cardinals will keep at least one of them here once Fowler and Sierra are back. But which one is the question and the answer will only come in how Sierra plays over the next few days.

On paper, it makes sense to keep Pham around because he has major-league experience and Sierra is trying to stick after making the massive jump from high-Class A Palm Beach to the big leagues.

But paper doesn’t matter much when it comes to executing on a baseball field. It’s obvious Sierra, 21, has a higher ceiling and a longer future with the club. So the Cardinals need to do what’s right to maximize his career and not mismanage his development.

What does that mean?

Sierra needs to stay as long as he continues to show he can hit major-league pitching. He passed the first test by surviving his initial exposure. But the next level of testing is going to occur when opposing teams get video on him and go to work trying to exploit any weaknesses in his swing.

If Sierra continues to hit well enough to justify being in the starting lineup four or five times a week, he should stay in St. Louis. If we get to the point that other players are a better option, then he needs to go back to the minor leagues where he can play every day and hone his craft.

If Piscotty comes back and both Pham and Sierra are playing equally well, it’s easier to send Pham to Class AAA Memphis. There he could play plenty and stay sharp waiting for his next call-up.

I hate to be brutally honest — especially since he is playing so well that he deserves to be in the major leagues — but Pham is 29 years old and has panned out to be a fourth outfielder at best. So any decisions the Birds make need to be focused on Sierra first and what’s best for Pham second.

It would make it easy for the Cardinals if Sierra goes hitless in his next eight to 10 at-bats. Then they can quietly send him back to the minors, thanking him for his service and telling him they’ll see him again soon.

But is easy what’s best? Sierra is an electric player. He’s the best outfielder on the 40-man roster and he hasn’t once looked as if he was overwhelmed by the major-league experience. If he continues to hit .375 in regular playing time and the front office sends him back to the bus leagues while the parent club loses its spark and settles back to playing .500 baseball, General Manager John Mozeliak might face charges of inciting a riot outside of Busch Stadium. (Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. But you get my drift...)

I wonder if Fowler is really having as much trouble with his shoulder as it appears — or if the Redbirds are telling him to take it easy in his recovery while they try to get an extended look at Sierra. On the other hand, if Fowler is really as seriously injured as it appears he may be, the Cardinals might need to keep Sierra around because they need his defense.

In the meantime, having Pham and Sierra around seems to be motivating the other players on the team, not the least of which is fellow outfielder Randal Grichuk who was slumping before Fowler started trying to work his way back into the lineup. As Fowler returned for the Cubs series, Grichuk found himself on the bench a bit more often. The result, a homer and a couple of doubles among his four hits in two games.

The Sierra experiment might not last forever. But I’m hoping it goes on a long time because I think he’s only going to be here as long as he’s helping the Cardinals win.