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St. Louis Cardinals save the best drama for last with late playoff push

So, St. Louis Cardinals, level with us. Are you for real this time? Or are you just jerking us around again, getting our hopes up by playing for a couple of weeks like you mean business, only to give away all your gains and then some with another maddening losing streak?

The Redbirds on Sunday completed a three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates while the Milwaukee Brewers took care of business by beating the Chicago Cubs. Suddenly, a team that was seven games out in the National League Central, thanks to winning eight of its last 11, is back to within two games of first place.

You can do the math and figure the odds. But there is just no telling what’s going to happen in baseball. With three weeks to go in the season, the team that has been left for dead time and time again is undeniably in the thick of things.

How?

Every time St. Louis adds another youngster from the farm system, it only gets better. While Paul DeJong, Magneuris Sierra and Luke Voit helped out the offense earlier this season, Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty have shown up to stabilize the pitching staff when it needed the help thanks to an injury to Adam Wainwright and the trade of Mike Leake.

Usually teams try to add veterans at the trade deadline to bolster their club. But it seems that the Birds did just the opposite, cutting loose big money players Jhonny Peralta, Jonathan Broxton and Leake, replacing them with younger and hungrier players.

Some of the St. Louis players whined to the media when Leake was traded that the front office was giving up on them. I’m opposed to the idea of the Cardinals running up the white flag. But it didn’t bother me at all to say goodbye to Leake. In short, he wasn’t a difference-maker. Was he the guy anyone (besides the opposing manager) wanted to see on the mound for the deciding game of a playoff series?

Leake always seemed like he had slumped shoulders and his chin down, winning or losing. It was almost as if he expected to fail. It sure didn’t seem like he relished the competition. Weaver, on the other hand, had something to prove. He’s played second-fiddle to top prospect Alex Reyes for the past two or three years as the pair climbed through the St. Louis farm system and some, as late as the middle of this season (when he was 10-2 with a 2.55 ERA with 52 strikeouts and 11 walks in 41 2/3 innings for Class AAA Memphis), dismissed Weaver as a “4-A player.”

It seems like fans were always willing to toss in Weaver’s name in any trade idea that they could cook up and propose on social media. He was the guy no one was afraid to trade only to have him turn into the next Greg Maddux. Proving he belongs, however, Weaver is 5-1 with a 2.16 ERA in place of Wainwright.

At this point, the biggest problem the Cardinals face is figuring out how to keep the magic flowing if this team manages to make the postseason.

We all know that reliever Juan Nicasio can’t be included on the postseason roster because he was acquired after Aug. 31. But what happens when longtime ace Adam Wainwright returns, along with his 73-mph fastball and his 5.21 ERA from the disabled list? Who would you chose to start a potential one-and-done wildcard game?

Carlos Martinez is supposed to be the ace. But he’s turned in nearly as many clunkers as he’s crafted gems this year. Would you start Lance Lynn, the pitcher who has been the most consistent this year, but who has been crabby about his club’s apparent lack of interest in signing the pending free agent to a contract extension?

Are the Cardinals going to turn to Seung Hwan Oh in the ninth inning after he lost the job twice already this season? Which outfielders would you keep? Dexter Fowler has carried the Cardinals offense for brief stretches. But he seems like he’s always hurt and Tommy Pham is a better center fielder. Would you put Pham in left? What about Randal Grichuk, the hot and cold player with 20 home runs? Could the Cardinals send Stephen Piscotty and his multiyear contract to the sidelines?

The team has to make it to the playoffs before we’ll have to worry about these details. But it’s certainly interesting that this team isn’t letting the front office off easy.

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