It wasn’t an easy season for St. Louis Cardinals fans.
You never knew what team you were going to get, the one that slept through May and June — or the one that stormed through the two months after the All-Star Break.
But fortunately, we didn’t have to sweat on Sunday when the Cardinals made a laugher out of game number 162. I don’t think I would have made it through the game otherwise. And I know I wasn’t at all looking forward to the prospect of St. Louis playing a tiebreaker game for the National League Central Division crown or, just as bad, settling for a wild card berth after holding a three-game lead with less than a week to play in the season.
In the end, the Cardinals made all the head scratching, stomach churning moments worthwhile by beating the Chicago Cubs in a game that saw Ben Zobrist take the mound for the first time — and presumably the last game — of his lengthy career. I didn’t need any late innings dramatics. I had enough of that Saturday when I became a Colorado Rockies fan, watching Trevor Story hit an extra innings home run to keep the Cardinals a game ahead going into the last day of the season.
Anyway, after six months of baseball we can finally figure out what the Cardinals are up against in the postseason. We now know St. Louis will play the Atlanta Braves with three of the five games happening on the road. It’s a tough task, but not nearly as bad as things could have been. First, there was the whole possibility of a tiebreaker and a wild card. Second, if the Cardinals didn’t get through that minefield, they’d have had to play the top-seeded Los Angeles Dodgers. So the home team is in much better shape than it could have happened.
Atlanta has some tough starting pitching, so that’s going to be a big concern for the hit-and-miss St. Louis offense. More concerning, it seem from the talk Sunday that Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong isn’t ready to come back from a hamstring injury that kept him out the last week-and-a-half of the season. So runs are going to come at a premium.
Flaherty, Wainwright and the Cardinals bullpen
As far as the St. Louis starting pitching goes, Jack Flaherty was the best starter in the National League the second half of this season. I was especially impressed Sunday to see him dominate in a playoff atmosphere.
On the other end of the experience spectrum, veteran Adam Wainwright will surely be lined up to start game three of the NLDS at Busch Stadium. He’s been simply incredible at home this year with a 9-4 record and 2.56 earned run average compared to a 5-6 record and 6.22 ERA on the road. In between, the Cardinals are likely to go with Dakota Hudson who has been mentioned this season in the Cy Young Award conversation although it would be a shock if he’d be a major contender, despite a 16-7 record and 3.35 ERA.
I hope the Cardinals can keep Miles Mikolas in the bullpen for the NLDS because he hasn’t been especially impressive as a starter with a losing record, far more hits surrendered than innings pitched and a high earned run average. He would be a better option as a reliever because, as good as they were for much of the year, several of the St. Louis relievers look like they’re out of gas at this point.
John Brebbia has been rough, John Gant was dominant for 80 percent of the season and ordinary lately, and Andrew Miller has been absolutely horrific. One of the reasons why those guys are so worn down is because Mikolas, along with recently-injured starter Micheal Wacha, have been so bad this year the Cardinals had to rely on the bullpen too much. We’ll see if they pay for that now.
Cardinals offense needs consistency
Meanwhile, the offense needs to find a way to get better without Wong. I’m not sure where the help is going to come from. But I can say without reservation that there is certainly potential for improvement.
Paul Goldschmidt is something of an unknown in the postseason because the Arizona Diamondbacks didn’t get there much when he played for them. But, to get a chance to play for a championship at this point of his career ought to be a motivating factor. Matt Carpenter had a lost season. But he showed signs of life with a big homer against the Cubs to help save the St. Louis season.
One other place the Cardinals could look for some offense would be if they put Dexter Fowler back in center field and played Yairo Munoz in right field. They could use Harrison Bader as a defensive replacement or as a pinch runner to maximize his glove and minimize his bat, at least when they’re facing a pitcher who throws a decent slider.
It’s going to be interesting to see unfold. While the Braves seem to be a bit ahead of the Cardinals in bringing their team together, I see these clubs as being pretty evenly matched.