Suddenly, Busch Stadium has a decidedly playoff-like atmosphere.
This Cardinals, who seemed a couple of months ago as if many of its players were only vaguely familiar with the game of baseball, are making all the right moves at the plate, on defense and on the mound.
I’m not sure if the firing of the assistant hitting coach a few weeks ago is the reason, but this team certainly seems to grasp the concept of situational hitting much more now than it did a couple of months back. The offense, which was under performing, now does a much better job at pushing runners up on the bases.
The result is fewer double plays and many, many more runs scored. It’s the difference between playing .500 baseball and winning 20 of 25 games.
And that is the difference between first place and third place.
Players who looked tight and uncertain on the field are now playing free and easy. In short, Cardinals baseball seems fun again as guys are taking extra bases, wowing fans with their agility and sure-handedness on defense and seem to always be in the right place at the right time.
While the Birds were depressing the first half of the season, they’ve got that edgy feeling back reminiscent of the 2011-2013 clubs that never seemed to be out of games as long as they had one more strike left in the bank. Instead of watching and waiting for that thing that’s going to go wrong to sink games, I find myself looking for that turning point when St. Louis is going to get up off the floor, dust itself off and go on the offensive.
I’m still left to wonder how Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson are going to stack up against the dominant pitching of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves come playoff time. Both those hurlers have been nothing short of awesome since the All-Star Game. But we all know that there is a tremendous amount of difference between the pressure in one of 162 regular season games and a do-or-die post season match-up.
My memories of Rick Ankiel’s playoff implosion are still painful to think about all these years later. That singular moment ruined an incredibly promising career as a pitcher for the prospect. Although it was heartwarming to watch him succeed as an outfielder, I was very hopeful the lefty’s comeback plans would have worked out this year so we could have had a glimpse of him as a dominant major league hurler.
It’s a fine time for the Cardinals to start playing their best baseball of the year.
Although they’re a season-high 18 games over .500, they have one of the toughest schedules for the last three-and-a-half weeks of the season. Basically, the playoffs start early with a pile of games against the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Nationals standing between the Cardinals and their goal of ending a three-year playoff drought.
I’m impressed by the toughness of this club to weather back-to-back doubleheaders and then take it to the San Francisco Giants. But this is no time for the Cardinals to be satisfied with themselves.