By Kevin Reynolds (@deckacards)
Wake up, St. Louis! Despite that ugly loss to the Marlins (they are a legit Wild Card contender for a reason), playoff baseball is coming early this year. Your hometown Cardinals are poised to pounce on the lowly Chicago Cubs, a hard-luck club that suddenly finds themselves perilously teetering and tottering on the edge of mediocrity. Consider this…
After sprinting to a 46-and-20 record from the season’s opener through June 19th, the Cubs have now gone a staggering 15-and-21 in their last 36 games. That stretch was started, perhaps ominously, by a three-game sweep at the unsteady hands of the Cardinals in the so-called friendly confines of Wrigley Field. It reached new heights Saturday as the Cubs suffered their fourth loss in a week when newly-acquired closer Aroldis Chapman blew his first save in Cubbie blue.
That wasn’t supposed to happen, right? This is the same Chapman described by baseball pundits as “a game changer” just hours after the deal with New York was completed. The same Chapman, dubbed the Cuban Missile by rabid Cincinnati fans, that’s held the Cardinals scoreless for the past five years. And the same Chapman whose acquisition was supposed to symbolize the Cubs’ dedicated pursuit of a World Series Championship in 2016.
Considering the Cubs haven’t won a championship in over 100 years, it’s fitting then that Chapman’s 100-plus mph fastball was responsible for the double off Leonys Martin’s bat that led to the eventual game-winning run Saturday afternoon. Think of it as a sign of things to come for the suddenly swooning sad sacks in Chicago.
The Cardinals’ fortune, on the other hand, appears to be turning around.
Best-described as a scuffling team suffering from inconsistent play, St. Louis stumbled their way through the early months of the season with a 40-and-38 record at the end of June. A winning record, yes, but a far cry from where the Cardinals expected to be when they began their NL Central Division title defense in April.
July, however, may be the fulcrum on which the Cardinals could pivot.
Long seen as the traditional halfway point of the season, MLB’s All-Star Break often gives teams a chance to reset, reboot, and refuel. The Cardinals, for one, have taken advantage of the respite. Their 10-and-6 record since resuming play July 15th has carried the squad to a 16-and-10 performance heading into the final two days before the non-waiver trade deadline. And if the schedule tells us anything, August could be even better.
In baseball’s second-to-last month before the postseason begins, St. Louis plays just nine games against winning teams with playoff hopes. By comparison, they play 18 against opponents with a sub-.500 record. Thus far, the Cardinals have feasted on such losers. Doing so again should hardly be a challenge, especially given the four days off built into the Cardinals’ August schedule.
That’s no big deal, though. The Cubs also get four days off in August. Of course, Chicago draws just 15 games against losing teams compared to 13 against contenders. And of those 13, four are against the suddenly energetic Cardinals, the team that’s played 5-and-4 baseball when matched up with MLB’s pre-season favorites.
Oh, and did I mention that three-game sweep in Wrigley just last month?
But it’s not just the August schedule that looks to favor the Cardinals. It’s the potentially rejuvenated roster that hopes to capitalize on the team’s newfound momentum.
They certainly didn’t need the likes of Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta, or Brandon Moss to put together their best month of the season, but all three appear ready to join the fray off the disabled list within a matter of days, a week at most. That’s uniquely significant in Carpenter’s case. The third-baseman-turned-second-baseman is quite possibly the best leadoff hitter in the National League, and most likely the best player not to crack The Sporting News’ Top 50 MLB Players list.
Hell, he’s probably better than half the players on the list.
He may be due yet another position switch when he returns, sliding over to first base to make room for the Ruthian exploits of Jedd Gyorko and his left-handed contemporary, the surprisingly resurgent Kolten Wong. Such a move may put pressure on slugger Brandon Moss, due off the DL days ahead of Carpenter.
Moss led the St. Louis offense with 17 home runs in part time duty when he played his last game on July 4th. It took the rest of the lineup nearly a month to catch up. Matt Holliday now leads the team with 18 homers. It’s fair to say Matheny will find a place to play Moss’ bat – maybe in a corner outfield spot where Randal Grichuk looks helpless…hopeless? Ah, hell. He’s both.
And then there’s the All-Star shortstop who led the Cardinals in home runs just a couple seasons ago, Jhonny Peralta.
Now settling in at third base with the ascendance of rookie Aledmys Diaz at short, Peralta hopes to finally stick in an everyday lineup that’s eluded him since that troublesome thumb started acting up. The overwhelming number of infield options should make it easier for Mike Matheny to spell his aching appendage and find just the right amount of games to deploy his potent bat. For Jhonny, playing everyday may actually mean playing two of three.
That’s more than enough for the offense already leading the National League with 529 runs and 142 home runs through 103 games. The Cardinals hope it’s enough to catch the rival Cubs and close an ever-shrinking gap in the standings.
If St. Louis hopes to make a fight of it in the Central, August looks to be their best shot at getting up off the mat and delivering a knee-buckling blow to the winter darlings of Major League Baseball.
Kevin Reynolds has covered the Cardinals for About.com, Yahoo! Sports, and various other entities. He’s been writing and podcasting about the Cardinals since 2004 at Stl Cards ‘N Stuff. Follow him and chat baseball on Twitter (@deckacards), and check him out on Facebook.