From Sports Open Line
Coming into tonight’s action the Cardinals are 7-games out of first place in the NL Central despite their recent stretch of strong play. The Reds are proving to be a seriously strong team and the Pirates have been much more resilient than I thought they could be.
So, is it time for fans to concentrate more on the Wild Card than the NL Central? The Cardinals are just 2 1/2 behind the Pirates for the 2nd Wild Card spot so at least statistically there’s a much better chance at getting into the playoffs that way. A 7-game deficit certainly isn’t insurmountable at this stage of the season but what follows paints a picture of a situation that may not get better anytime soon, even if the Cardinals continue to play great baseball.
There is still time for any of the three to suffer a 10-game lapse that could alter the landscape of the division race. As a matter of fact, given how well all three have been playing of late it’s only a matter of time before a decline hits one of them…or all of them.
The Cardinals are 13-6 since being swept by the Reds to open the second half of the season. That’s a .684 clip, by the way. Heck, they’re 12-4 (.750) in their last 16 games. During all this time they haven’t been able to make up any ground, which is remarkable. 13 of their next 16 are at home so if there is an opportunity to make up ground the stretch that begins tonight is it.
The Pirates are 12-7 since they lost 2-of-3 to Milwaukee to open the second half and they play their next 11 games at home (ARZ, SD, LA) before they come to St. Louis to take on the Cardinals.
As for the Reds, well, they’re 18-4 since the All-Star break and almost all of that is with their best player, Joey Votto, on the disabled list. During this stretch they’ve been playing a lot of close games, evidenced by the fact that Aroldis Chapman has 13 saves since the break, and they’re winning those games. They’ve only lost one game decided by three runs or less during that 18-4 run.
The truth is, none of these three teams are likely to maintain this kind of pace. They’re all going to dip to some degree between now and the end of the season. It’s just a matter of how badly they slip once they dip.
Here is the problem for the Cardinals and the Pirates:
The Reds don’t play a team with a winning record until they face the Cardinals August 24-26 in Cincinnati.
Cincinnati plays the Brewers, Cubs, Mets, Cubs and Phillies over their next 18 games. Even if they slow down a bit, they’re going to win a lot more than they lose during that stretch.
The Cardinals play 16 games during that same time frame against the Giants, Phillies, Diamondbacks, Pirates and Astros. That’s not murderer’s row but the Giants, D’Backs and Pirates are all winning teams that are either currently in a playoff spot or just outside (Arizona is 4-games back in the NL West). Even if the Cards keep on clicking it’s not going to be easy making up ground while the Reds are facing a bunch of losing teams.
It certainly seems like the Wild Card is a better opportunity for the Cardinals and while I will not rule out a run to the NL Central Division title it is safe to say that fans would be better off focusing on Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Arizona in the Wild Card race than they would be worrying about what the Reds are doing everyday.
Remember, the mindset of the team is not what I’m talking about. They’re not following the races they way we do because they have a big enough challenge with the job they have to do each day. They focus on the micro while we can focus on the macro. What they can control is what happens in the next game they play and that’s all they can focus on. The rest of us, however, have the time and the freedom to take a look at the big picture and assess the situation.
The Cardinals can make a comeback and win this division but to do so they’ll have to keep pace with the Reds and Pirates over the next three weeks and then do a lot of damage head-to-head later in the season. They play the Pirates 6 more times this month and they face the Reds 3 times this month and then 3 more times on the final weekend of the season. The kind of damage they’d need to do against the Reds is of the “win 5-of-6″ or “sweep a pair of series” variety
If you’re going to make up 7 games you have to do it in a big way head-to-head.
If not, the Wild Card is still there. They’d have to win an extra game but that’s not the end of the world. We’ve seen this team do the whole “underdog wins the World Series” routine a couple of times in recent years.