By Kevin Reynolds (@deckacards)
The Cardinals are rolling. After an agonizing start to the season, St. Louis used an 18-and-6 bum rush to pull away from the only team in the NL Central that matters. As of May 15th, they sit 3.5 games ahead of the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs and a game ahead of the second place Brewers.
Two weeks into April, this didn’t seem possible. Not before August, or even July. Certainly not before June.
But just a month and a half into the season, the Redbirds are proving to be a resilient bunch. That mettle, pliable and sturdy – bending oh so far but refusing to break – is about to be tested.
The Cardinals open a stretch of 18 games tomorrow that includes two against the well-armed Boston Red Sox, seven against Kershaw and the Dodgers, and three versus the ball-bashing Rockies in the rare air of Colorado’s Coors Field. The Giants, mired in a 15-and-24 start to the season, represent a potential lull in the schedule and a chance to rack up a couple valuable wins, but even San Francisco could pose a frustrating challenge for a St. Louis roster that always seems flummoxed by Posey’s G-men. At least they’ll avoid Bumgarner and AT&T Park this time out.
The Cubs, meanwhile, will be looking to capitalize on a more relaxed schedule to avoid sliding any further back in the standings.
While the Cardinals wade through a swamp filled with hungry predators – three of four teams St. Louis faces through June 1st are legitimate contenders with winning records – the Small Bears will be playing patty-cake with the Reds, the Giants, and the San Diego Padres, three teams with a combined record of 48-and-67 and a total deficit of 21.5 games in their respective divisions.
At least the Brewers look ready to put up a fight, albeit in Wrigley Field, and the Dodgers in Dodger Stadium should pose a significant obstacle to Chicago’s plan to gain ground on their rivals by June. And that’s important, because when June starts…things get interesting.
After two months of baseball and six head-to-head games played in Busch Stadium, the Cardinals will square off against the Cubs on June 2nd in Wrigley Field for the first time this year.
That series, after two weeks of scratching and clawing for every game in the standings, looms large for the Cardinals – a team trying desperately to position themselves for a favorable post-All-Star push – and the Cubs who may very well see the standings in July as a barometer for just how much to give up at the trade deadline to acquire starting pitching help.
It also promises to be one of the most emotional three-game sets of the entire MLB season to date. Don’t believe me? Just look at the numbers.
In back-to-back games against the Cubs in St. Louis this past weekend, the Cardinals set two consecutive attendance records in this latest incarnation of Busch Stadium, pushing a total of 143,408 fans through the gates Friday through Sunday. And hop on over to the Cubs team site to purchase tickets, and a simple note on the first game of the June series greets you.
“Marquee Game – 4 Ticket Limit.”
It’s a 1:20 pm start time. And there’s a four-ticket purchase limit.
Cubs fans have been waiting over 100 years to rub a World Championship flag in the faces of their arch-rivals, and they’re poised to show up in force to take part. Between the fan fervor and what portends to be a tight race by June, that series in Wrigley is going to be huge. If the Cardinals don’t come out on top, they could find themselves looking up at the Cubs once again heading into the All-Star break.
Let’s get into the rest of it…
(yes, this is your weekly Bird Watching post, but I didn’t want to cram the words into the title…HEY! I make the rules here…I can break ’em…)
The Cardinals face a difficult roster decision or two in the near future. Jhonny Peralta’s rehab stint – up to 20 days per MLB rules for position players – is scheduled to end just shy (or right in line with, depending on how it’s managed) of the upcoming Cubs series in Chicago. And with outfielder Stephen Piscotty nearing his own return from a mild hamstring injury, the fate of minor-league call-ups Tommy Pham and Magneuris Sierra has become even more intriguing. Sierra has to return to his place deep in the farm system to continue his development at some point, and Pham is one of the only vulnerable players on the roster with an option remaining (Greg Garcia, for example, has none). But both have proven to be key pieces in this extended St. Louis run. Can the Cardinals really afford to send them down right before toeing the line against the powerhouse Cubs in Wrigley? And if Peralta doesn’t show something more than a 2-for-8 performance in Palm Beach during his time in Memphis, will John Mozeliak really be so willing to break out his GM-sized crow bar and force his $10-million-dollar man onto a roster that seems to be finally clicking?
The St. Louis bullpen is taking shape at just the right time. Kevin Siegrist hasn’t allowed a run in his last nine innings, holding opponents to a .235 batting average despite a .348 BABIP. Matt Bowman seems to be heading in the same direction with zero runs allowed in his last four games. He’s allowed just one hit and no walks in his last three innings pitched. And the Rosenthal-to-Oh tandem at the back end looks, finally, unbeatable. If Brett Cecil can get his act together soon, it’s going to be very difficult for teams to mount late-inning comebacks. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the upcoming schedule won’t provide many low-leverage opportunities for Cecil to pitch before Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are salivating from the left-handed batter’s box in Wrigley Field come June.
It sure was good to see Adam Wainwright pitch well again. If his new bag of tricks holds up, this rotation could finally be imposing enough to win the Central, especially considering the fragile nature of the Cubs’ 2017 rotation.
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.