On a weekend saturated with football — 44,000 fans at the Liberty Bowl, home wins for every Mid-South SEC team, and 11 Manning touchdown passes — the St. Louis Cardinals won their biggest series of the season, sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium to leapfrog the Bucs and climb back into first place in the three-team dogfight that is the National League Central Division. A few observations as the last three weeks of baseball’s regular season unfold:
• The playoff chase in the National League is thoroughly uninteresting — we’ve known the five teams that will qualify since the first week in August — until you look at the NL Central standings, where two games in the loss column separate the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cincinnati Reds. (The Reds are eight games up on the next team in the wild-card standings, the Washington Nationals.)
This isn’t exactly what Bud Selig had in mind when he added a second wild-card for the 2012 season — 10 teams planning for the 2014 season on Labor Day. But the three-team race for the Central Division crown is compelling, as no team wants any part of the win-or-go-home wild-card game (a game won last year by the Cardinals in Atlanta). The team that survives these last three weeks will have the luxury of actually establishing a pitching rotation for a five game series ... and without spending its ace on the wild-card affair. The team with the most to gain by winning the division? Pittsburgh. Francisco Liriano has had the kind of season that can dominate a five-game series (if he’s needed for two starts). After Liriano, the quality of the Pirates’ rotation drops precipitously.
• The Cardinals essentially held serve on their recent 13-game stretch against the Pirates and Reds (going 7-6), and it’s no secret as to how they’ve righted a ship that looked to be listing last week in Cincinnati. Last Friday, Joe Kelly started on the mound for St. Louis and held the Pirates to a single run in six innings. Adam Wainwright followed Saturday with seven shutout innings (after looking dreadful in his last two starts against the Reds), then rookie Michael Wacha (5-3 for Memphis this season) hurled seven shutout innings Sunday. With Lance Lynn spiraling downward (five losses since his last win on August 4th) and rookie Shelby Miller struggling for consistency, the trio that baffled Pittsburgh may prove to be keys to any Cardinal postseason presence.
• Pirate centerfielder Andrew McCutchen (.322 batting average, 19 homers, 27 stolen bases) would likely get my MVP vote if the season ended today. And Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina (.320, 39 doubles, defensive presence extraordinaire) is as valuable to his team’s cause as any other player in the game. But Cardinal second baseman Matt Carpenter should get some votes. Just two years after manning third base for the Memphis Redbirds, Carpenter has taken hold of a premium defensive position in St. Louis, made himself one of the best leadoff batters in the game (.386 OBP with a league-leading 112 runs and 174 hits), and is two doubles away from reaching a plateau — 50 — that only four Cardinals have reached. Those four players are either in the Hall of Fame (Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, and Ducky Medwick) or on their way (Albert Pujols).
• In his win Saturday night, Wainwright moved past Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean into second place on the Cardinals’ all-time strikeout list. That’s the good news for the 32-year-old righty, now with 1,103 strikeouts on his baseball card. The bad news for Waino? He remains 2,014 punch-outs behind the Cardinal record holder, Hall of Famer Bob Gibson.
• Among the contending teams in the Central, the Cardinals have the most favorable remaining schedule, with 12 home games (out of 19) and none against the Pirates and Reds, while Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will play each other six more times before the season concludes (September 20-22 in Pittsburgh and September 27-29 in Cincinnati). Looking for a spoiler? Milwaukee will square off with the Cardinals six times, starting Tuesday night at Busch Stadium.