On this day four weeks ago, the St. Louis Cardinals entered the All-Star break with a sense of renewed hope with newly-crowned (interim) manager Mike Shildt at the helm even if the season already felt sort of hopeless. The team was 48-46, and to conceivably slip in to the Wild Card Game by reaching the 90-win mark (which seems as good of a dividing line as any), they were going to have to play at a near 100-win pace for the remaining 68 games. That’s not something the Cardinals have done over a span of 68 games since the end of the 2015 season, the last time the Cardinals played past game 162.
Twenty-four of those 68 games are now off the books and so far, so good. The rejuvenated Cardinals are 15-9 since the break (a 101-win pace!), and have won five series in a row versus both very good and very bad teams, while currently riding a five-game winning streak. Playing the Marlins and the dreadful Royals has certainly been nice, to wit the Cardinals have more than doubled their run differential (currently +45) in the last four games alone.
Shildt to my novice eye has been wonderful. Or, at the very least, wonderful at not getting in the way. I can maybe remember a bunt that caused me to look at the television sideways, but other than that he’s been the manager for over 15 percent of the games this season and I can’t remember a single time when a game ended and I was left wondering what on earth he was thinking. Can you really ask for more from a manager? And this is probably underselling him still – the Cardinals might have a gem on their hands – I’m just showing what little restraint I have when talking about a mere 25 games, most with a new and improved (thank god) bullpen.
Now comes the hard part. Forty-four games left, and the Cardinals need to go 27-17 to reach 90 wins (a 99-win, .614 win pct. pace). We saw 2011 so we’ve seen the impossible actually happen, and 27-17 is far from impossible. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Thirty-five of the 44 games are against winning National League teams, many of whom are striving for the same thing as the Cardinals. So there’s great opportunity for the Cardinals to play their way into October, or see to it that the last ten days or so will be no different from that fleeting moment in 2017 when on August 12 – almost exactly to the day – the Cardinals found themselves tied for first after beating up on bad Reds, Royals (that was Rally Cat time), and Braves teams. Then, they lost six of eight as the schedule tightened and were 4.5 games back a mere ten days later, never to recover.
So things are about to get interesting.
Tonight the Cardinals welcome the Washington Nationals to Busch Stadium for a four-game set. The Nationals are one of those teams alluded to above who are playing for the same thing as the Cardinals and at 60-58, they currently sit three games behind the Cardinals in the Wild Card standings.
If we thought the Cardinals had it bad from a frustrating, underachieving standpoint around the time of the managerial change, the Nationals might be the one franchise who felt zero pity. Thus far they’ve surrendered a division that everyone had earmarked them to win to two teams (the Phillies and Braves) who were still thought to be a year away. This after firing Dusty Baker in the offseason, who averaged 96 wins during his two seasons in Washington, to hire Dave Martinez, a guy who had certainly paid his dues around the league but had zero MLB managing experience coming in. (And last night this happened.)
It’s been a rough go of it so far for Martinez. Barry Svrluga, a wonderful columnist for the Washington Post, hinted about two weeks ago that Martinez didn’t have the strongest hold on the clubhouse. The Nats’ current predicament is hardly all on him though. Other than Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer has probably (and unsurprisingly) been the best pitcher in the NL. The rest of the rotation has been more or less effective but pretty banged up as well (Stephen Strasburg hasn’t pitched since July 20). The bullpen has mostly survived by having the second highest strand rate in the league but the peripherals don’t paint a great picture. And, it now includes Greg Holland.
Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton have both battled injuries for most of the season and have yet to hit like their past versions. Anthony Rendon is still one of the better players in the NL, but he’s missed close to 30 games. Ryan Zimmerman is somehow only 33-years-old, but his season has been dogged by injuries as well.
Now for the good things. I already mentioned Scherzer. There’s also Bryce Harper. He was having what was considered a very poor season in his final year of team control with the Nationals, but has since turned it around with a 198 wRC+ after the All-Star break. And wonder-kid Juan Soto is putting up a .300/.400/.500 season as a 19-year-old in just over 300 plate appearances.
That’s the Nationals. If the Cardinals have any illusions of making the postseason, a 2-2 split is probably the minimum they can afford. That would recalibrate the goal of 90 wins to 25-15 in their remaining 40, which is not ideal but still not impossible. Lose the series and they’re looking at a daunting 26-14. Get swept and, well, you get the idea.
Here’s one thing to consider: If you watched ESPN last night, you likely saw Scherzer scowling and stomping around on the mound. That means the Cardinals will miss him this series and that certainly means something. For a stat that means nothing but is still fun to look at, the Cardinals own a 48-35 advantage over the Nationals since this franchise moved to the District, including a dominant 28-11 advantage at Busch.
Also, what the hell, let’s watch this:
Per FanGraphs, here are the projected starters for the series as well as the Cardinals’ win probability.
All games begin around 7 pm CST, except for Thursday’s game which begins just after 6:00 pm.