Columns & Blogs

It’s been the same ol’ story for the St. Louis Cardinals. Can they write a new ending?

We’ve spent the year thinking we’ve binge-watched this show before.

A drama featuring the St. Louis Cardinals, hanging around and hoping for a playoff spot.

Usually, better than the bad teams.

Usually, worse than the good teams.

A little bit of this. A little bit of that. And, astonishingly, with just enough — at this point, anyway — to have the the Cardinals in playoff contention as the season arrives at the home stretch.

Breaking bad? Yeah, we’re worried it could still happen. Stranger things? Yup. The good place? Not quite yet.

For four years running, we’ve watched Cardinals seasons unfold in the most wrenching of ways, always coming up just a few wins short, sometimes wracked by disappointing play from its most promising players, occasionally marred by mishaps large and small.

And yet — with almost exactly one fourth of the season left to play, after four months of fan frustration — the Cardinals have emerged as contenders for a division title or wild card berth.

They have the underachieving Cubs to thank for that. In any other division — you know, the ones led by genuine postseason contenders — the Cardinals would have little hope for a playoff spot.

Instead, they start the last full week of August in a virtual first-place tie with the Cubs atop the National League Central, and stand among the top contenders for the play-in wild card game.

Thanks to the underachieving Chicago Cubs, the St. Louis Cardinals are in contention to win the NL Central. Jeff Roberson AP

NL Central division is one of the worst in baseball this season

It’s amazing what eight games over .500 gets you in the nondescript NL Central, a division no one seems to want to win.

Put it this way: If the Cardinals were in the American League, they’d be no better than 10 games behind the closest division leader, and 6 1/2 games behind the second team in the wild card race.

If they were in the NL West, they’d be 15 games back of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the NL East, they’d be six games back of the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves, for heaven’s sake! With apologies, mind you, to the Braves’ manager. Yeah, you don’t know his name, either, do you? (Little known fact: It’s somebody named Brian Snitker.)

And yet. And yet.

Because the league must choose an NL Central champion, and two wild card entrants — I looked it up, and, yes, they really have to — the Cardinals remain in the October playoff picture.

This month, the Cardinals have gone 8-7, including a season-high five-game winning streak on the heels of a 3-8 stumble at the end of July and the start of August against AL contenders Houston and Oakland, the NL-best Dodgers and the Cubs.

“We’ve gone on streaks before, but it’s all about keeping it going as long as possible and cutting out the bad times,” starting pitcher Dakota Hudson told reporters after the Cardinals swept the lowly Kansas City Royals in a three-game set last week. “I feel like we’re getting started on playing good baseball.”

Evidently, the Cardinals have less to do with that than the quality of their opponents.

Typically, the Cardinals have profited by playing baseball’s bottom dwellers, posting a 36-23 record against teams with a losing record. But they’ve fallen short when facing better clubs; they are just 28-34 against NL and AL teams with winning records.

Why does that matter? Simply this: With 40 games left, the Cardinals have 23 games left against winning clubs (Milwaukee, Washington, San Francisco and the Cubs), and 17 against teams with losing records (Colorado, Arizona, the Reds, and the Pirates).

Those winning clubs began play Monday 26 games over. 500. The losers are 39 games under .500, including the Pirates’ dispiriting 21-games below the break-even mark.

Most importantly, 24 of the Cardinals’ remaining 40 games are at home, where they are 34-23. Just 16 of the 40 are on the road, where they are 31-34.

The Cardinals are in first place in the NL Central, but if they were in the same division as the Dodgers, they’d be 15 games back. Alex Gallardo AP

If the Cardinals make the playoffs, can they beat the Braves or Dodgers?

So, the Cards seem set up for a final push to October. But what then?

Even if — the operative word there is “if” — the Cardinals can muck their way past the Cubs and Brewers for the NL Central crown, they seem ill-equipped to face the Dodgers, Braves or even the wild card entrant in the playoff’s opening round.

If the playoffs began today, the Cardinals would be the road underdog against the Braves, with the vaunted Dodgers an overwhelming favorite to pummel the wild card contestant — either the Nationals or the Cubs.

That means the Cardinals, even if they escaped the first round, would likely face L.A.’s Clayton Kershaw, Hyun Jin-Ryu, and Corey Seager et al in the league championship series, a daunting prospect at best.

Maybe that’s why the Cardinals brass did nothing at the trade deadline, thinking no deal could elevate them to the same plane as the Dodgers.

And maybe that’s why we’ll be holding our breath as this pennant race rushes to a close, wondering which Cardinals team we’ll be watching as the season concludes.

Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has been writing about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985.