There’s something inherently silly and strange about locker room celebrations in sports, something bizarre and contradictory about celebrating sporting greatness by acting like a reckless maniac and consuming some adult beverages that lessen your motor skills. Maybe it makes more sense after a championship, when there will be months until the next game. But following the St. Louis Cardinals’ champagne-soaked (and, because they were in Milwaukee, possibly Champagne of Beers-soaked) celebration on Tuesday night, the turnaround until the next game the Cardinals play is roughly twenty hours. And it will be against a good, motivated Milwaukee Brewers team that will be sending Brandon Woodruff to the mound. But for the Cardinals, tonight means nothing. And neither do the next six games after that.

The St. Louis Cardinals clinched the National League Central last night; if the Brewers win the remainder of their games and the Cardinals lose the remainder of theirs, they would finish with the same record, but because the Cardinals will have won the season series against the Brewers and because, for some reason, Major League Baseball decided to eliminate single-game tiebreakers, the Cardinals would be declared division champions. If the Cardinals win all seven remaining games in their season, they will finish with 97 victories, which is the same mark presently held by the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets; even if the Cardinals held the tiebreaker against those teams, which they do not, the Braves and Mets still play each other three more times, so by definition, the NL East winner will finish with no fewer than 99 wins.

The Cardinals’ fate is sealed–on October 7, the Cardinals, as NL Central champions, will host the National League’s third Wild Card team. As it stands right now, the Cardinals would face the Philadelphia Phillies, though the Milwaukee Brewers (whom they could assist today at no cost to themselves by fielding an extraordinarily weak and/or hungover lineup) and to a lesser extent the San Diego Padres remain potential opponents. And, aside from whatever the Cardinals can contribute to the Brewers’ cause this evening, nothing else the Cardinals do this season matters. The regular season, for practical purposes, is over. And the Cardinals will have earned the seven most meaningless games they could ever hope to enjoy.

To be clear, I think the Cardinals’ players are going to try. But manager Oliver Marmol, rightfully, will likely be extremely cautious with players. No relievers pitching on back-to-back days. Ample days of rest. Lots of Ben DeLuzio. Honestly, just let Adam Wainwright DH on Sunday when he pitches, who cares?

The Cardinals organization, by virtue of the way they have set themselves up over the years, are in relatively unfamiliar territory. Having truly meaningless baseball games means either being bad enough that you get eliminated from postseason contention fairly quickly or it means being so good that you no longer have so much as playoff seeding to play for. Most Cardinals teams of recent vintage have fallen somewhere in the mid-eighties to low-nineties win range and therefore every game, for better or worse, matters. But this year, the Cardinals will get a rare week off, a week for tired players to get rest and for the team to shuffle its rotation as it desires for the postseason.

How far back would you have to go to find a season where the Cardinals played as much truly, objectively meaningless baseball as this one? Last year, when the Cardinals clinched the second Wild Card spot, with no possibility of moving up to a division title or the first Wild Card spot, during Game 157, therefore leaving five meaningless games until their Wild Card Game tilt against the Los Angeles Dodgers, this was among the longest stretches of useless baseball the Cardinals have played in recent history.

That the Cardinals did not have a meaningless game in 2020 is not especially stunning–the eight-teams-per-league format over a sixty game season led to a lot of chaotic silliness, and unless a team was a juggernaut or far removed from being a conventional postseason contender, neither of which was the case for the Cardinals, being part of the jumbled mess was always the likeliest scenario. In 2019, the Cardinals entered Game 162 with motivation–they had already clinched a playoff spot, but they had just a one-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers for first place, thus needing a victory or a Brewers loss in order to secure the division and avoid the one-game Wild Card Game which was eventually won by the future World Series champion Washington Nationals–by the end of the third inning of their game against the Chicago Cubs, the Cardinals held an eight run lead, and all doubt was removed relatively quickly.

In 2018, the Cardinals clawed their way back from a slow start but did not face elimination from postseason contention until the Saturday before the end of the regular season and thus only had one meaningless game. In 2017, the worst Cardinals regular season of the last decade and a half, the Cardinals still remained in contention until the Thursday before the conclusion of the season with just three games left on the schedule.

2016, coming off five consecutive postseason appearances, caps off a truly historic run of meaningful baseball, a run during which the Cardinals played just five meaningless games. In 2016, while the Cardinals missed the postseason, they entered Game 162 just one game behind a Wild Card spot, and although they held up their end of the bargain and won, the San Francisco Giants also emerged victorious. 2015 saw the bulk of the meaningless action–after the Cardinals clinched the division over the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 159, the Cardinals coasted through three more games against the Atlanta Braves. In 2014, the Cardinals clinched the division early on the day of Game 162, early enough that by the time they took the field against the Arizona Diamondbacks, they fielded a lineup so absurd that MLB started scheduling all of the season’s final games at the same time to avoid such shenanigans. In 2013, the Cardinals had a playoff spot locked down but did not clinch home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs until a Game 162 victory. In 2012, the Cardinals clinched the second Wild Card in Game 161, and in 2011, famously, the Cardinals needed until Game 162 (actually, until the Atlanta Braves’ Game 162 later in the night) to officially punch their ticket.

In both 2008 and 2010, the Cardinals missed the playoffs by a semi-comfortable margin, eliminated following their 157th game of the season and thus having five meaningless games. In 2009, the Cardinals won the NL Central but their postseason destiny–going on the road to face the Los Angeles Dodgers–was not determined until the 161st game of the season.

The most recent season in which the Cardinals had more than seven meaningless games came in 2007, which is also the last season during which the Cardinals had a losing record. Following a 6-3 loss to the Houston Astros on Friday, September 21, the Cardinals fell 9.5 games back of the Chicago Cubs, and with the Cubs trailing the Wild Card contenders as well, the Cardinals were officially eliminated from postseason play. And over the next nine games, the Cardinals went 7-2.

Despite the lack of stakes involved, the Cardinals have performed quite well in meaningless games since 2007, going 22-12. Is 34 games enough to be meaningful or informative? Perhaps not, but it qualifies as interesting nonetheless. And there is a dramatic disparity between the Cardinals’ record when they have meaningless games because they clinched a playoff position versus when they are meaningless due to being eliminated–the Cardinals are just 4-7 after having clinched their playoff spot, something of a paradox considering those teams are, almost by definition, more successful baseball teams. Following elimination, the Cardinals are a stunning 18-5. These runs were most pronounced during the Tony LaRussa era–after going 7-2 post-elimination in 2007, the Cardinals closed out both 2008 and 2010 on 5-0 runs after being eliminated. Was this a reflection of Tony LaRussa wanting his teams to fight even when the cause was lost? Was this a matter of Tony LaRussa fundamentally not understanding what should constitute real stakes? Is this whole question a Rorschach test whose answer depends on your feelings about Tony LaRussa?

I love watching baseball, and I love watching meaningful baseball, but I am pumped to not watch much baseball over the next week. Maybe catch up on some movies, do some reading, even (gasp!) go to bed at a reasonable hour. See ya on October 7, Cardinals!

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