The next two weeks, for good or ill, will decide the St. Louis Cardinals’ season.
Win and they’re in.
Lose? I doubt they’ll pout.
Not after a second-half surge that’s put them on the cusp of a playoff berth for the first time in four years.
But challenges remain for a team that began play Monday with a two-game lead over the Chicago Cubs in the National League Central.
The biggest challenge? The Cubs are one of four winning ball clubs left on the Cardinals’ schedule — the Washington Nationals to start the week, followed by a four-game set in Wrigley next weekend, three road games with the Arizona Diamondbacks a week from now, followed by a three-game series with the Baby Bears at Busch Stadium the last weekend of the regular season.
The Cardinals enter that stretch both energized and enfeebled, sparked by a revived batting order and the top of the rotation but vexed by a bullpen battling ineffectiveness and a mystery illness for closer Carlos Martinez.
Martinez was hospitalized and bedridden, battling respiratory ailments, when the Cardinals pen came apart in a 7-6 loss to Milwaukee on Sunday.
“We’re trying to figure out, whether it’s (an) allergy or respiratory (problem), exactly what it is,” manager Mike Shildt told reporters at Busch Stadium on Sunday. “We’re hopeful he’s day to day.”
So are the Cardinals’ playoff prospects, facing a tougher schedule that the Cubs or Brewers the rest of the way.
The 81-68 Cubs, who scored 41 runs in a weekend sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates, play the 70-80 Cincinnati Reds and the 65-85 Pirates in addition to the 83-66 Cardinals these last two weeks.
The 80-69 Brewers, who won two of three from the Cardinals over the weekend to get within three games of the division leaders, play the 68-81 San Diego Padres, the 20-under-.500 Pirates, the 10-under-.500 Reds and the 65-85 Colorado Rockies.
The Cardinals face the 13-games-over-.500 Cubs, the 82-66 Nationals and the 76-74 Arizona Diamondbacks.
Put another way: The Cubs’ remaining opponents are a combined 13 games under .500, and the Brewers’ foes are 63 games under the break-even mark.
It won’t matter if the Cardinals play as the club that went 16-9 in July and 18-9 in August. But they have been just 8-7 in September, a number that must improve as the second half of the month plays out.
That 42-25 run since the start of July — the Cardinals were 41-41 at that juncture — has been fueled by a resurgent batting order, led by Paul Goldschmidt (17 homers, 58 RBI in 66 games since July 1), Kolten Wong (hitting .350 the last three months) and Dexter Fowler (36 runs scored, 34 RBI in that span).
The starting pitching has been stellar, led by Jack Flaherty’s 6-2 record and an astonishing 1.05 ERA in 12 starts since the All-Star Break. Dakota Hudson has been 5-1 in six starts since Aug. 14, and Adam Wainwright is 5-1 since Aug. 10 — allowing just one earned run in 20 innings spanning three starts this month.
But the bullpen has fallen again on rough times, rocked in the early going by the loss of Jordan Hicks to season-ending elbow surgery, and flummoxed in the last few days by Martinez’ medical travails.
Shildt and pitching coach Mike Maddux are still looking for consistent, effective left-handed relief and someone who can temporarily assume the ninth-inning duties until Martinez gets healthy.
The season may turn on his emergence from his hospital bed. But it will also turn on two weeks of play against some of the best teams in the National League.
“It’s not supposed to be easy,” two-time Cardinals World Series winning manager Tony La Russa liked to say.
The way this season has gone for the Cardinals, you wouldn’t expect anything different.