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WHEELER: Cards In Complete Control of Playoff Destiny

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St. Louis Cardinals Yadier Molina is restrained by brother Bengie while manager Mike Matheny argues with umpire Clint Fagan in the third inning against the San Francisco Giants at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on June 2, 2013. Both Matheny and Yadier Molina were ejected.  UPI/Bill Greenblatt

St. Louis Cardinals Yadier Molina is restrained by brother Bengie while manager Mike Matheny argues with umpire Clint Fagan in the third inning against the San Francisco Giants at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on June 2, 2013. Both Matheny and Yadier Molina were ejected. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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I know what some of you are thinking.

Duh.

Of course the Cardinals are “in control” of their playoff destiny, they’re in 1st place!

You’re right, of course, but there’s more to it than that. Allow me to explain…

The Cardinals enter play this week with a 2 game lead over the Pirates and a 5 game lead over the Reds in the NL Central. That’s a pretty tight race, 3 teams within 5 games, so nothing should be taken for granted.

So the division race is a significant challenge and with 14 games against the Pirates and 9 games against the Reds between now and September 8th the opportunity is there for any team to make a move. The opportunity is there for the Cardinals to take control.

Forget the division for a moment, even though we know how important winning the division is now that you have the Wild Card Game to deal with, and take a look at the Wild Card picture in the National League.

The Pirates are the top WC team with a 3-game lead over the Reds, owners of the 2nd WC spot. The Reds are 4.5 games up on Los Angeles, 6.5 up on Philadelphia and 7 up Washington.

So to put that into some perspective: the Cardinals are 5 games ahead of Cincinnati, which means they’re 9.5 up on the Dodgers, 11.5 up on Philly and 12 up on Washington.

Does anyone think they’ll blow those kinds of leads between now and the end of the regular season? There are 9.5 games between the Cardinals and missing the playoffs completely.

If the Cardinals were to play .500 ball over their final 66 games they would finish with 92 wins. The Dodgers would need to go 42-23 (.646) in their final 65 games just to tie the Cardinals.

By the way, if the Dodgers did that they’d very likely win the AL West so the Wild Card would be irrelevant for them. The Diamondbacks, Phillies or Nationals would have to have similar (or better) finishes to be in the mix.

In other words, it would take an absolute collapse for the Cardinals to miss out on the playoffs entirely. Heck, it would take a collapse by the Pirates for them to miss out on the playoffs. The difference between the Cardinals and the Pirates, of course, is that the Pirates have had just that kind of collapse the last two seasons.

It is possible for the Cards to miss the playoffs, it’s just not likely.

That said, winning the division is paramount. You don’t want to end up like the Braves last year and blow a 94-win season by losing the Wild Card Game to an 88-win team.

With the schedule heating up the next 6 weeks will be the most important, telling stretch of the season for the Cards. Heck, if they can maintain their current level for another 2-3 weeks they’re going to be in a strong position even if they struggle in the 2-3 weeks that follow.

After this week’s 3-game series against the Phillies at Busch the Cardinals embark on a critical 10-day, 11-game road trip trough Atlanta (3), Pittsburgh (5) and Cincinnati (3). As if it’s not enough that they have to go through those teams they also have to pay an extra tax with a Tuesday double header in Pittsburgh.

That’s an awfully difficult stretch both from a physical and a competitive standpoint. If they can 5-6 wins on that trip they’ll be in great shape moving forward.

After that they have a 10-game home stand with the red hot Dodgers (4), the Cubs (3) and the Pirates (3).

Keep in mind there is only one off-day between today and August 12th. They have 21 games in 21 days with only one off day. Again, very taxing but if they get through that with even just 10-11 wins they’ll be okay.

The next six games, between August 16-21 are on the road in Chicago and Milwaukee. They’re both struggling so that’s a chance to pick up some wins. What comes after that 6-game trip, however, is another bruising stretch:

7-game home stand August 22-28: Atlanta (4), Cincinnati (3)

7-game road trip August 30-September 5: Pittsburgh (3), Cincinnati (4)

Following those stretch the Cardinals have a 3-game series against the Pirates September 6-8 to close down that brutal 6-week running of the gauntlet.

From September 10-29 the Cardinals play 19-games against teams that all have losing records as I type these words. So if they can make it through the 6-weeks of hell then they’ll be in position to finish strong and solidify their spot in the playoffs, assuming they’re in reasonably good health.

The next 6 weeks are going to be filled with challenges. The Cardinals will look great at times and they’ll stink at other times. Prepare yourself mentally so that you don’t have to ride the waves – up and down, up and down – and so that you don’t drive yourself nuts in the process.

It’s about to get real for the Cardinals but they’re in good position with the best record in baseball, plenty of depth and an aggressive GM who will look to bolster the roster if good opportunities present themselves.

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