MLB: Are the Cardinals Ready to Shock the Cubs?
Is this St. Louis Cardinals run enough to make you believe again? Nearing the 100-game mark of the 2016 season, we’ve seen the Redbirds endure terrible stretches of starting pitching; the flameout of Trevor Rosenthal; and injuries to Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Moss, and Matt Carpenter, the club’s best position player. We’ve also seen the Cards withstand a 25-6 run by the Cubs to start the season. None of it has buried Mike Matheny’s club yet.
Following a four-game sweep of San Diego, St. Louis headed into the July 22 weekend series versus the Dodgers within striking distance of first place in the once-impossible NL Central. Shocking the Cubs by taking the division suddenly doesn’t seem like an impossible feat, and the upcoming stretch may very well precede an epic battle at Wrigley on August 11.
If you asked folks about the Cardinals’ chances a month earlier, they’d tell you a Wild Card would be great. The club stood 12.5 games behind the Cubs on June 19, so any postseason action sounded nice enough. Just 28 games later, the Redbirds had whittled that deficit down to 6.5 games. If you like looking deeper, the team’s 9-16 record in one-run games and +102 run differential, third-best in MLB, suggest they should have an even better record.
But only the final scores count, so St. Louis will have to put those wins on the board and hope for another extended rough stretch for the Cubs like the team experienced starting in mid-June. The time to make that run would be the three-game set with L.A. followed by four in Miami.
Once the calendar flips to August, the Cardinals have three in Cincinnati before heading back to Busch for six versus the Braves and Reds. Though it rarely works out this way, St. Louis has a clear path to making up ground by the time of the August 11 series (four games) in Chicago.
On the Cubs’ end, the task is a slightly heavier lift after the team ended the first half with the easiest opponents of any team in the Major Leagues. Prior to eight at home versus the White Sox, Marlins, and Mariners, Joe Maddon’s team will spend five days away facing a pesky Milwaukee and the ChiSox on the South Side.
All eyes are on a Chicago Cubs team that didn’t respond particularly well to losing Dexter Fowler, David Ross, and Jorge Soler for extended stretches. The return to sanity of the entire starting pitching staff played as much a role as any in that run that let the Cards and, to a lesser extent, the Pittsburgh Pirates back in the race with 65 games to play.
So what has been the Cardinals secret after struggling at so many points in the first half? While you could point to the incredible contributions of Aledmys Diaz replacing Peralta at short and Stephen Piscotty in right, the club’s trademark resiliency has surfaced again.
With Adam Wainwright struggling early, Carlos Martinez and Jaime Garcia picked up the slack. When Rosenthal collapsed, Seung Oh stepped in to deliver. Elsewhere, the unheralded addition of Jedd Gyorko (as opposed to Ben Zobrist) has yielded the second baseman’s best season to date in 2016. Mike Leake, whose acquisition was reason for Cards fans to rejoice, has had an uneven year (7-7, 4.00 ERA, 3.87 FIP).
But the rise of Diaz, who had never played in the majors before this season, has been the biggest surprise for St. Louis. Likewise, the continued maturation of Piscotty (14 HR, 56 RBI, .867 OPS) has been enough to make the loss of Jason Heyward (4 HR, 28 RBI, .648 OPS) more than palatable for ownership and fans alike. The club will need more of the same after Matt Holliday and Carlos Martinez exited games with shots to the face in the same series.
Six games versus the Dodgers and Mets will be a test for a team that has had trouble putting its best hitting and pitching together on certain nights. According to Pythagorean projections, the Cards should be 57-38 after 95 games rather than 51-44. Only the Cubs and Nationals have outscored opponents on the level of St. Louis.
Between now and the end of the season, the Cardinals and Cubs square off another 10 times in games that will have the division riding on them. In another marathon season, NL Central fans could might their money’s worth yet again.
Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY