Typically, folks say that a Major League Baseball season is a marathon, not a drag race. But that’s no longer the case for the St. Louis Cardinals or the Chicago Cubs in the 2017 playoff push.
Five and a half months after it began, the National League Central Division race is nearly neck-and-neck. What happens this weekend could very well make or break the year for these clubs and decide who goes on to the postseason and who goes home.
The Redbirds go to Wrigley Field with nothing to lose and everything to gain, playing a Chicago team that couldn’t shake its nemesis from St. Louis despite the Birds’ season-long struggles to find consistency in any aspect of their game. The fact that St. Louis is only three games out is little short of a miracle. And they’d only be two games out if the Birds could have managed a sweep of the Cincinnati Reds this week while the pathetic New York Mets couldn’t put up any sort of resistance in Chicago.
I wonder what the Cubs faithful think about this edition of the Cardinals. Gone are the players they love to hate like Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter and Jim Edmonds. In the places of those former stars are a group of young phenoms the Cubs weren’t counting on to drag the Redbirds back into relevance. I’m sure they’ll find a way to hate these Cardinals, too. But it certainly is a different looking team than they’re used to.
The Cardinals found a shortstop with a nice glove and 20-plus home run pop, lightning-fast baserunners in Harrison Bader and Magneuris Sierra and effective young hurlers in Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty and Sandy Alcantara. While the kids might be a little green, the Cardinals also found an unlikely spark plug in longtime minor-leaguer Tommy Pham who went from being a fourth or fifth outfielder to the best player on the St. Louis roster for a large chunk of the season.
Usually, when a team makes it to the playoffs, it’s because it’s had one player have a career year to give the club an extra push over the top. The Cardinals have had at least five players greatly exceed expectations to change the course of the 2017 season which until a couple of months ago seemed headed directly to the dumpster.
The Birds have been left for dead multiple times this season. For stretches, they’ve played so bad that they weren’t even fun to watch. It was torture waiting for the crucial error or the bullpen blowup that was going to snatch another defeat from the jaws of victory. But they’re playing with a purpose now and, if they can hold it together for three more weeks, they have a good shot.
But it all hinges on this weekend. The Cardinals simply have no choice but to win this series — and take at least four of the seven games they have left with Chicago including a series later this month at Busch Stadium — if they’re going to play October baseball. Winning five of seven would be even better.
That’s a tall task. But I feel oddly confident they can do it after all they’ve been through this season. Win or lose, I’m glad they at least have a chance.