The Cardinals are chasing the Milwaukee Brewers, trailing the first-place Crew by 10 games in the NL Central.

The Cards hope to scissor Milwaukee’s lead during 13 head-to-head games between now and the end of the regular season. The rivals open a three-game set at Busch Stadium on Tuesday night, and will face each other 10 times in September.

If the Cardinals honestly believe that they still have a shot of overtaking Milwaukee, they’d better get after Milwaukee. Starting now. For weeks we’ve been hearing Cardinals players talk about the opportunity to close the gap because of their frequent matchups against the Brewers. And indeed, 29 percent of STL’s remaining 45 games will feature the Brewers as opponents.

From the Milwaukee standpoint, the Brewers are in position to do a lot of damage to the Cards in the final weeks. If the Crew can do no worse than win a fair share of games — say, six or seven out of 13 — they’ll hush any talk of St. Louis being a threat to win the division. (That said: no objective person thinks the Cardinals will menace the Brewers in a serious way.)

If the Brewers can win a bunch of these games, the impact could wreck the Cardinals’ campaign for the NL’s second wild-card playoff spot. St. Louis, which has cut San Diego’s lead to four games, will try to fight off three excellent Milwaukee starting pitchers that are lined up to face them: Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff. After Milwaukee goes away, the Cards will play nine of their next 11 games against the Pittsburgh Pirates. If the next three games go poorly for the Cardinals, at least they’ll have a cushion for a soft landing.

The Cardinals have Milwaukee’s attention. The Brewers come into Busch with 51 wins in their last 75 games. The Brewers aren’t slowing down; they’ve been 14-5 since late July and went 6-1 last week. But if you wonder if the Brewers will view the Cardinals as a harmless nuisance, forget about it. No chance.

“I think the theme here is the frequency with which we play, and we’re going to become very familiar with them over the last six weeks,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell told media that cover his team. “It’s always challenging, for sure. They’re getting healthier, they made some trades for some veterans at the deadline in the rotation. It sounds like we’re going to face a couple guys that are back from injury that are good pitchers, so it’ll definitely be a challenge.”

Counsell was referring to recently acquired starting pitchers J.A. Happ and Jon Lester, the return of Jack Flaherty from the IL, and the possibility of seeing Miles Mikolas, who could return from the IL this week. And then there’s Adam Wainwright, who will pitch the first game of the series tonight. (Followed by Flaherty on Wednesday, then either Lester or Mikolas on Thursday.)

The Cardinals have won six in a row, are 8-1 in their last nine, and have lost only nine of their previous 26 games. The Cards received many compliments from Milwaukee reliever Brent Suter.

“It’s a great team,” Suter told Milwaukee media. “They’ve got a really good lineup, some good pieces out of the bullpen and in the starting rotation. We’re going to have our hands full, for sure. It’s a great challenge. And we are looking forward to the series, a bunch of series coming up.”

By now, no one should be surprised to see the Brewers above the third-place Cardinals in the standings.

Since the start of the 2017 season Milwaukee ranks second in the NL with a .559 winning percentage. (The LA Dodgers are No. 1, at .628.) The Cardinals are fourth (.534) one spot behind Atlanta (.537.)

The Brewers have made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons; the Cardinals got there twice over that time.

According to the 40-man roster figures at Cots Contracts, the Cardinals have spent an estimated $911 million on player salaries over the last five years. The Brewers have funded their 40-man payroll at a cost of $585 million over the last five seasons.

That isn’t a good look for St. Louis management.

Here’s a quick look at the reasons why the Brewers (72-47) have forged such a significant advantage over the Cardinals (61-56) so far in 2021:

1) A resourceful, aggressive front office. President of baseball operations David Stearns is one of the brightest in the business, and he’s been able to fill holes created by incessant injuries. In anticipation of a high volume of injuries, Stearns padded the Brewers with formidable depth this season. The Crew has set a franchise record this season by using 60 players. Sixty. During one stretch in May the Brewers had 18 guys on the IL at the same time, but Stearns always came up with a solution. Example: the Brewers already have used 27 different relievers this season. And the Brewers have bolstered their offense during the season despite outfielder Christian Yelich’s quiet year and a disappointing season (offensively) by free-agent outfield addition Jackie Bradley Jr.

1a) Craig Counsell is not only the best manager in the NL Central; an argument can be made that he’s the top manager in the National League. Excellent at running a bullpen. He’s smart about spreading out his starters in a six-man rotation at times to lower the individual innings load. He uses his entire position-player supply. He’s strategically a step ahead of most opponents. He does a better job than most of implementing advanced metrics. He’s a superb communicator who has the complete respect of his players. With Counsell’s attention to detail, the Brewers are sharp defensively and are rated as the NL’s second-best baserunning team by FanGraphs.

2) Milwaukee has a 3.11 rotation ERA that ranks third in the majors to the Dodgers and SF Giants. Among NL starting pitchers that have thrown a minimum of 100 innings this season, Walker Buehler (Dodgers) has the league’s best ERA at 2.09. Next come the Milwaukee Three: Woodruff (2.18), Burnes (2.23) and Peralta (2.30.) That’s right. Three of the four best starting-pitcher ERAs in the NL belong to the Brewers. And all three have wicked strikeout rates.

“Having three guys performing to that level is pretty special,” Counsell said. “It’s a huge reason for our success. There’s no question about it. These guys have been really good and really consistent. And really tough to beat.”

3) Stearns made a pivotal trade on May 22, landing Tampa Bay shortstop Willy Adames in an opportunistic move that’s paid off in a huge way. The Brewers have a .680 winning percentage since the day of the trade. Adames has 22 doubles, 16 homers, 48 RBI and 49 runs for his new team. He’s a terrific onbase guy (.378 OBP) and has slugged .551. Adames is being mentioned in National League MVP discussions.

4) The bullpen is deep. It’s led by closer Josh Hader, and chief setup man Devin Williams. But Suter, Brad Boxberger, Jake Cousins and Hunter Strickland have settled in as effective bullpen pieces for the middle and late innings.

5) The Milwaukee offense is better than you think. The overall season rankings aren’t very good, but toss them out. The Crew has made additions and changes during the season to give the lineup more bang and flexibility. Since the start of June the Brewers are among the NL leaders in runs scored with an average of 5.4 per game. And their hitters are third in OBP, fourth in slugging and fourth in OPS over the last two-plus months. The Brewers have the league’s best walk rate (10.1%) and have cut down on strikeouts since June 1.

6) Stearns found other live bats for a flat offense. It wasn’t just Adames. In advance of the July 30 trade deadline he landed first baseman Rowdy Tellez from Toronto and super-utility dude Eduardo Escobar from Arizona. In 30 games, big-man Tellez has six homers, 20 RBI, a .613 slug and 1.027 OPS. He bats from the left side and draws a ton of walks. In 15 games as a Brewer, Escobar is hitting .322, frequently getting on base (.375 OBP) and slugging .542. He’s played first base and third base for the Brewers.

7) Luis Urias has solved the team’s third-base quandary, and he’s also seen extensive action at shortstop and third base. Yes, another Stearns trade that’s made a big difference in the Crew’s 2021 surge. Urias is slugging .446, driven in 55 runs, and is tied for second on the team with 16 homers.

8) Former Cardinal second baseman Kolten Wong has been sidetracked by three stays on the IL, but the Brewers are pleased by his performance in 78 games that includes a .339 OBP, .446 slug, 21 doubles, nine homers and 46 runs scored. Another hitter that Stearns acquired before 2020, outfielder Avisail Garcia, has 15 doubles, a career-high 21 homers and 54 RBIs.

9) Catcher Omar Narvaez was named to the NL All-Star team, and he deserved the honor. Narvaez is batting .292 with a .840 OPS, 11 homers, and 39 RBI.

10) Sorry for my redundancy, but I’m doubling up on emphasizing Milwaukee’s depth advantage. It’s among the many reasons why the Cardinals couldn’t keep pace. Counsell uses everyone. He doesn’t bury guys on the bench for weeks at a time, as Cards manager Mike Shildt did early in the season with infielder Edmundo Sosa. Another difference: Counsell doesn’t abuse relievers by wearing them down. Depth is a massive factor in Milwaukee’s rise to the top of the division.

“All 26 guys can seriously help you win games,” Counsell said after a recent game. “That’s how you win a lot of games; you do that. We’re getting contributions in a four-game series from everybody. We’re not relying on one guy to do it.

“It can be different guys. It is different guys. You can count on it being different guys. I think we’ve seen a pretty good team that can count on other guys, whoever’s in the lineup, stepping up. Whoever is on the mound, stepping up. That’s going to let you withstand things that are going to happen during a season. And it’s allowed us to withstand all of that.”

Thanks for reading.

Enjoy the Cards-Brewers series.


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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.