The Cardinals are in good shape as they make the turn into September. They are trending favorably. Their record (76-55) is sharp. Their offense is putting men on base and probing space with frequent home-run shots. The pitching staff has fewer gaps, and a determined Jack Flaherty is prepared to reclaim his spot in the rotation.
The St. Louis lead in the NL Central isn’t entirely safe, but a 6 and ½ game advantage with 31 to play is a reasonably sturdy strongbox.
The Cardinals open a seven-game homestand Friday night. The Cubs are in town for three games, and the Nationals come in for a four-game set that begins on Labor Day.
MY TOP 5 QUESTIONS FOR SEPTEMBER
1–Will the fond farewell season for Albert Pujols end in celebratory fireworks? Can The Mang hit six more baseballs into the ozone to reach 700 home runs for his career? Time is clicking down, but Pujols can get there. It won’t be easy unless The Great Pujols goes into the unstoppable and unbelievable mode, just as he did last month by firing eight home runs in 61 at-bats. In one epic August run Pujols hit five homers in 16 at-bats over five games … and then he cooled down and hit two homers in his final 30 at-bats to close the month. That isn’t bad. Hitting a homer every 15 at-bats is very good. But if Pujols can have another memorable, incredible barrage – go ahead and put 700 next to his name.
Pujols hit 11 homers in July-August, averaging one HR for every 10.1 at-bats. (He had 111 ABs over the two months.) So that’s what we’re looking at. He is unlikely to get 111 at-bats over the final 31 games, but he doesn’t need 11 homers; six will do. Pujols punishes lefties, so hopefully he’ll see a lot of those fellows. But If the Cardinals can lock down the division with time to spare, manager Oli Marmol can put less emphasis on the platoon-split matchups and give Pujols extra at-bats. And there would be nothing wrong with that.
2–Can Paul Goldschmidt win the Triple Crown? I hope so … but I wouldn’t bet on it. First of all, he isn’t the kind of person to obsess over personal achievements. He doesn’t hunt for batting titles, home run titles, or RBI titles. He just takes smart at-bats and stays within himself. Then again, maybe that discipline will help him, because he won’t be overswinging and going nuts. But he’ll have to prevail in all three categories, and the competition is tough. Goldy has an eight-point lead over Freddie Freeman in batting average, is tied with Pete Alonso with 105 RBI, and has three fewer home runs than Kyle Schwarber. It’s one thing to finish ahead of one of those players … or even two. But all three? Goldy will also have to avoid injury. And you don’t want to see him get worn down before the playoffs. He slowed down late in August, going 4 for 21 (.191) with no extra-base hits or RBIs and eight strikeouts. A slump of sorts was inevitable, and Thursday’s off day will probably help him. But a prolonged slump could doom his chance of winning the Triple Crown.
3–As September begins, what is the Cardinals’ biggest concern? I think it’s the bullpen. I’m not in the Chicken Little mode; I just wonder how this group will hold up. Genesis Cabrera lost velocity and effectiveness and was being hit very hard – so the Cardinals sent to the minors. Giovanny Gallegos had a very good August, but can he repeat it? In his final seven relief appearances in August, closer Ryan Helsley gave up three home runs to his 35 batters faced. He had a 3.00 ERA in the seven games, and was walloped for a .455 slugging percentage. That’s probably nothing. Or it could be something. And the Cardinals will need strong middle relief from Andre Pallante and Jordan Hicks (among others.) Newcomers Chris Stratton (RH) and JoJo Romero (LH) can pick up the slack, and rookie Zack Thompson (LH) could provide extra value in a more meaningful role. Oli Marmol is skilled at adapting when the bullpen gets tired and he needs to deviate from the original plan. And that’s a plus.
4–What are the most important things that must happen with the St. Louis offense in September? Same as it ever was. Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill have to find the groove and stay there. The switch-hitting Carlson is too smart and talented to be such a liability against right-handed pitching. He’s hit .210 with a .633 OPS from the left side this season – and was awful as a LH batter in August, posting a .154 average, 24% strikeout rate and .533 OPS. Carlson is strong against LH pitching, and that’s fine. But Marmol’s flexibility is limited by Carlson’s ongoing weakness against RH pitching. In his final 61 at-bats in August, O’Neill came on for a .370 OBP, .574 slug and slammed six homers with 15 RBIs. If can continue to rock on – and if Carlson can figure it out when he bats from the left side – the Cardinals would go into the postseason with a menacingly stretched-out lineup.
5–Is it football season in Milwaukee? Is it all about the Green Bay Packers now? Will Aaron Rodgers fail on the NFL postseason stage? How will the Badgers do in the Big 10 West? Will Wisconsin’s passing game improve? Oh, yeah. The Brewers. Are they written off as yesterday’s news? No. They have not packed it in, so to speak. FanGraphs gives the Crew a 6 percent chance to win the NL Central, but there’s always a wild-card ticket. And a third wild card is available for the first time. That helps Milwaukee, which has a 34.2% shot of grabbing a wild card according to FannGraphs.
The Brewers refer to September as “Craigtember” in honor of manager Craig Counsell and the team’s recent history of strong finishes. The Brewers went 20-7 late in 2018 to capture the NL Central title. They won 18 of their final 20 games in 2019 to make the playoffs. They wrapped up the division in 2021 by winning 13 of 18 to keep the second-place Cardinals at a safe distance.
“It’s a position that we’ve been in before,” Counsell said. “We know there’s some urgency to how we play, and I think that’s a good feeling. There’s a lot of new guys here, but certainly we’ve got a lot of guys who have been through this before and you know that when you walk into this month it’s got to be a good month.”
Bonus Question: I know that you’re probably wondering why I didn’t list Jack Flaherty as one of the five questions. But really, I don’t know what to expect from him, so I don’t know what to say. We just have to watch him pitch when he makes his first start back, and adjust our expectations accordingly. But a strong Flaherty would give the Cardinals a more imposing rotation.
Final note: The Cardinals will play 14 of their next 17 games at home. They’re 42-22 at Busch Stadium this season, so that’s a big deal. And 12 of the next 14 home games will be played against teams with losing records: Cubs (3), Nationals (4) and Reds (5.) One winning team, the Brewers, will visit for two games. The Cardinals are 50-26 vs. losing teams this season.
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
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.