As I write this, the St. Louis Cardinals have a two-game lead in wild card race in the National League. As annoying as the “if the playoffs started today” line can be, it’s working in the Redbirds’ favor right now.
And the Pittsburgh Pirates were usually in fold-up mode at this point of the season, at least they have been over the last two seasons. But they’ve zoomed right past the Cardinals, and are threatening to run away with the NL Central at this point. The Cardinals have proven to be a resilient bunch, and it would be a mistake to count them out just yet.
But the memory of last year has to be fresh in the minds of the Cardinals and their fans. They must remember how they finished six games behind Atlanta in the wild card race last year, and any year before 2012 that would have left them on the couch, watching the playoffs like the rest of us.
But things were different last year. Atlanta’s superior record got them the home field advantage, but in a sudden-death playoff game that didn’t mean very much. The Cardinals pulled out the win, and made a run through the playoffs that almost got them back to the World Series. They snatched an extended postseason away from the Braves, and sent Chipper Jones into retirement earlier than even he thought possible. So they know the first wild-card spot can be an illusory thing. It’s much better to win the division, which guarantees at least one full playoff series.
So, the Cardinals needed to get back on track, beginning with last night’s game against the Cubs. The red-hot Dodgers had just taken three of four from the Cards in St. Louis, and the Cubs must have looked a lot better coming in than the Dodgers did. The Pirates were even doing their part, by getting pummeled in Colorado. The Cardinals had a chance to pick up a game on the Pirates, and remind them that the pennant race is only just beginning.
And yet, somehow, the Cardinals lost 3-0 to the Cubs last night, despite out-hitting them seven to five. The Cardinals had more hits, at home, against a struggling opponent, in a game they might need to have somewhere down the line. And they couldn’t get it done. It’s only one game, and baseball’s scheduling means one game means far less than it might in any other professional sport. But still, the Cardinals had an opportunity last night, and they let it get away.
The Cubs are going nowhere this year. The blue-clad faithful who made the trip to St. Louis last night, and who will do so for the rest of the series this weekend, are a dispirited bunch. Trust me, because I’m one of them. Some have already bought into Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and what they are trying to accomplish, while others — like me — haven’t seen anything worth getting excited about just yet. And yet the long-running nature of this rivalry means that all these games are important, even if the only payoff is putting a crimp in the other team’s push for a division title.
If the Cardinals win their division with room to spare, then Friday night’s game won’t matter all that much. But with just seven weeks left in the season, every game now takes on an added importance. And if the Cubs can further muck things up for the Cardinals in any way, it will be a fine thing, indeed.