Everyone who follows the St. Louis Cardinals seems to be obsessed with the mathematics regarding whether the team can catch the Chicago Cubs these days.
As is usually the case for me — especially when it comes to how it’s applied to baseball — I couldn’t give a hoot less about algebra.
Look, a month ago, the Redbirds were on the outside looking in when it came to the National League playoff picture. It seemed certain that, for the third year in a row, St. Louis wasn’t going to play host to October baseball. So, while I usually complain that making the wild card play-in game is shameful, the Cardinals are now playing with house money and anything is better than the nothing they seemed destined to receive.
That being said, I’m not giving up on the idea of a National League Central Division title. As I write this, the Birds are 4.5 games behind the Cubs with a month of baseball left to play. Pencil pushers can sit there and tell me that if the Cubs win 55 percent of their games the Cardinals would have to win 70 percent of theirs to catch up. And it’s true, sort of. What happens if St. Louis sweeps the Pittsburgh Pirates while the Cubs have just a little hiccup and lose three games in a row. Suddenly, it’s dead heat with 27 games left to play. Anything could happen.
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The Cubs may have the lead right now. But don’t tell me they don’t feel pressure. As Mike Tyson used to say in his prime: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It’s up to the Cardinals to continue to put pressure on Chicago and force the Cubs to tense up. So far, they’re doing a great job of it. A little more than a month ago, in late July, St. Louis was 8.5 games behind the division leader — in fourth place. Have we forgotten the magic of 2011 already? Compared to that comeback, the task at hand would be a walk in the park.
The Cardinals have nothing to lose as they tighten their grip on the wild card. Six weeks ago, the Birds were making plans for October vacation. I’m thrilled to see them get as far as they’ve come already.
Speaking of how far the team has come, congratulations to manager Mike Shildt who managed to shed the interim from his title before the end of the season because of the remarkable turnaround he’s engineered. It was a little bit of a risky move for team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. What if the Cardinals suddenly lose 10 games in a row and don’t make the playoffs. Would he be second guessed? Maybe. But Shildt has proven to be the tactician and bullpen manager former skipper Mike Matheny couldn’t be, no matter how hard he tried. The players love Shildt and he’s — almost to a person — caused the St. Louis roster to leap forward over his predecessor.
I wonder what the perception of Shildt will be among free agents this winter. The talk was that a lot of guys weren’t interested in playing for Matheny. Will they be more impressed by a guy who is something of an unknown outside the organization? I don’t know. But I was guessing two months ago that the Cardinals were heading for a serious overhaul. Suddenly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The team probably won’t be in the market for a lot of free agent talent because the pitching and outfield depth charts are overflowing, Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong seem to have the middle of the infield locked down while Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter don’t seem to be slowing down.
If anything, the Cardinals are probably going to shed a couple of pieces in veteran starting pitchers Adam Wainwright, a free agent at the end of the year and Michael Wacha who has one year of team control left. If St. Louis needs anything, it’s a third baseman who could play better than average defense while holding down a spot in the middle of the order.
Toronto Blue Jays third sacker Josh Donaldson has been a long-rumored target and the Jays are rushing him through an injury rehab assignment in hopes of salvaging something of his lost last season under contract. I don’t know if the Cardinals are a player for his services now. But they might make a reasonably-priced gamble in free agency. I have long been a fan of Justin Turner who two seasons ago signed a four-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. If LA manages to re-sign infielder Manny Machado — who prefers to play shortstop over third but is better at the latter than the former — the team might deal Turner to make room. If St. Louis could add Turner for two years, that might be the only big move the club makes this winter.