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Sunday is put up or shut up time for the Cardinals

Up to this point of the season it seems that the Cardinals have politely declined to seize control of the National League Central Division race every time the club has been presented with the opportunity.

That's got to stop today.

After fumbling away the division lead with a disastrous 2-5 road trip against chief competitors the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds, the Cardinals have managed to claw their way back into first -- by half a game -- with 20 games left in the 2013 campaign.

While they certainly won't salt away the division crown with a win Sunday to sweep the Pittsburghers -- or condemn themselves to failure with a loss -- the Redbirds would certainly put themselves in the driver's seat with a win. They'd be at least a game and a half ahead of the Pirates and Cincinnati, assuring themselves of a lead going into their day off Monday.

A loss would not only put the Cardinals back in second place. But Pittsburgh could stretch the lead out to a full game with a win Monday as St. Louis sits helpless and idle. And it would create the opportunity for the Reds to settle in half a game behind the Birds.

The Sunday game is St. Louis' last against its chief competitors. So if the game is lost, the Redbirds lose the ability to completely control their own destiny. If the Bucs or Reds win out, the Birds couldn't do anything to stop them. I'm not suggesting either of those teams will win it's last 20 games. But I could see them match the Cardinals with a win for a win.

There's been a lot of talk about the weak schedule the Cardinals have to finish the season. But let's not forget the team's they're playing are major league teams that can be dangerous. And let's also not pretend their competitors don't have something to play for. 

Do we believe that the Milwaukee Brewers, who play the Redbirds six times in the last 19 games, wouldn't like to beat the team the has been their chief rivals for the last decade? The Cardinals crushed Milwaukee's World Series dreams in 2011 during the playoffs, a wound that surely hasn't completely healed.

The Birds have to play four games in Colorado against the Rockies, a team that is 41-31 at home. Then they play three at home against another team that probably doesn't care much for them in the Washington Nationals. Not only does DC carry the baggage of getting its dream 2011 season snuffed out by St. Louis, but don't tell the Nationals that they're out of the wild card picture. If they're still mathematically alive, the Birds can expect the Nats to fight like a wounded animal. And then the Cardinals close out against the Cubs, a team whose franchise is built on a foundation of bitterness and spite.

The Reds don't exactly face the 1927 Yankees in their last three weeks of play. They have three games against the Cubs, three with the Brewers, three against the worst team in baseball in the Houston Astros, three against the Mets and six against the Pirates.

Pittsburgh plays six against the Cubs, four at home against the San Diego Padres, three against the Texas Rangers and the six against Cincinnati.

So, Cardinals, the stakes are pretty obvious. It's time to FINALLY show the Pirates who's the boss of the NL Central. It's time to be serious about making a post season run by winning the right to play in a real playoff series instead of playing in a hokey wild card play-in game.

It's also time for the young players, specifically starting pitcher Michael Wacha, to show they they can do the job when the games really count. It's a trial by fire to say the least. But Wacha said when he was called up earlier this season that, as far as he was concerned, he was here to stay. Now it's the time to show that he deserves to stay.

Wacha was fantastic in his last start against the Reds. There's no reason he shouldn't be as successful as a less offensively talented club in the Pirates.