THE REDBIRD REVIEW
It could be a festive Tuesday night for the Cardinals in Milwaukee. With a victory over the Brewers the Cards will clinch the NL Central division title. They can spray champagne, and douse each other with Anheuser-Busch products. And if the fellers are in the mood for mischief, they can make like the 2004 Cardinals and celebrate the coup de grace by taking a ride down the Bernie Brewer slide.
The two-game stop in Milwaukee could be good for the Cardinals for another reason: they can use the motivation to wrap first place to restore their competitive edge. It hasn’t been sharp for a while now. And for the most part I’m referring to the hitters.
As the Cardinals begin play at American Family Field, they’ve lost five of their last seven games, gone 8-9 in their last 17, and are a flat 10-10 since Sept. 5. Over the 20-game stretch the Cardinals are 27th in the majors in runs and rank 28th in four primary categories: batting average (.213), onbase rate (.285), slugging percentage (.360) and OPS (.645). They’re also No. 28 in park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+) with a performance that’s 14 percent below average offensively.
The Cardinals have been selective in their inspiration. They’re fired up on days that Albert Pujols homers and carries them. That’s when the dugout goes nuts, and the players are energized. The Cardinals were determined to win for Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina when the battery set the all-time record for most starts (325.)
But on a day-to-day standpoint, something is off … something is missing. It could be just the simple reality of the math. In terms of the division, this team hasn’t been challenged for seven weeks and five days.
The Cardinals moved into first place on Aug. 5 and have remained there without any real threat of a takeover by the Brewers. Moreover, the Cardinals have maintained a division lead of at least six games since Aug. 25.
The Cardinals earned their way to the top of the NL Central by sprinting away from the Brewers at a blistering pace, romping to a 28-8 record on a streak that began July 31. But it would be dishonest to deny the other side of this: while the Cardinals were winning 28 of 36 games, the Brewers were losing 21 of 35. The Crew had no real competitive response, couldn’t keep up, and soon gave way. And with that, STL’s only credible competitor in the NL Central was reduced to a non-factor.
The baseball season isn’t easy. But for the Cardinals, winning their division was much easier than expected. The St. Louis offense began surging after the All-Star break, and president of baseball ops John Mozeliak dramatically altered the state of play in the NL Central on Aug. 2 with two transformative trades for left-handed starters Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery.
Mo’s moves erased Milwaukee’s advantage in starting pitching. Since Aug. 2, St. Louis starting pitchers have 6.0 Wins Above Replacement, ranking 12th in the majors in WAR value over that time. But Milwaukee’s starters have amassed only 2.4 WAR since Aug. 2, ranking 22nd in MLB in rotation value.
And with an improved rotation lessening the burden on the bullpen, Cardinal relievers settled into a consistent groove, ranking second in the majors in Win Probability Added (WPA) since Aug. 2.
It wasn’t just the pitching. During the 28-8 run the Cardinals combusted for an average of 5.7 runs per game, batted .273, reached base in 35 percent of their plate appearances, slugged .492, and bashed home runs in 32 of their 38 games – hitting two or homers 21 times.
But the St. Louis offense has slowed to a teeter in September, scoring two or fewer runs in 10 of the team’s last 21 games … and topping four runs in only seven of the 21. The stall-out raises legit questions about the Cardinals’ offensive viability for the postseason. So if the Cardinals have the capability to power up and stage a sequel to their previous show of strength … it’s just about time to do it.
It’s become increasingly difficult to evaluate this offense. Part of that is knowing that the Cardinals collected so many plug-in-and-play wins and big offensive numbers in games against the pitiful Pirates, Reds and Cubs.
The Cardinals have won 89 games this season – and a whopping 39.3 percent of their total victories have come against the Pirates, Reds and Cubs. And to extend the point, the Cardinals have gathered 67.4 percent of their total wins against opponents with losing records.
The Redbirds have flopped against winning teams – 29-34 record – and are 23-27 when playing winning sides in the National League. As I’ve noted many times, the Cards have an abysmal record (10-20) when playing winning teams on the road.
Understatement: The 2022 Cardinals still have much to prove before they can expunge skepticism.
Look, I can understand why this team would decompress. Once the Cardinals perked up on offense and upgraded the rotation, winning the division title was as simple as picking up food at curbside. They had the NLC in their pockets for weeks, with no real hope of catapulting over the Mets (or Braves) to seize the National League’s No. 2 postseason seed.
So yeah, I’ll give the Cardinals at least some benefit of the doubt. But it’s Sept. 27 with only eight games to play before the close of the regular season. The Cardinals should be highly motivated in Milwaukee. They should be psyched up this coming weekend for the final three home games
I know that some players really could use extra rest – Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado in particular – but generally speaking, it’s nearly go time for the Cardinals. So snap out of it, already.
It’s risky when a team thinks it can just flip a switch to control its intensity level. For all of the advance talk about the Cardinals being so determined to prove themselves against the Padres and Dodgers, they lost four of six games on the SoCal tour, and the offense was rendered impotent in the four defeats. The Cards scored only three runs, total, in their four losses. So much for making a statement about who they are. That said, the real statement will be issued – good or bad – in the postseason. Get ready.
NOTES ON MY SCORECARD
Brewers Are Desperate: This two-game tango with St. Louis is a HUGE series for the Crew. The Brewers are 1½ games behind the Phillies in the chase for the most accessible playoff spot – the NL’s No. 3 wild card. But as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel points out, the Brewers actually trail the Phillies by 2½ because Philadelphia holds the tiebreaker advantage after winning the season series between the teams. The Brewers also lost the season series to the Padres, who currently hold the No. 2 wild-card voucher. The Padres lead the Brewers by three games — but it’s really four games because of the important tie-breaker edge.
The Brewers Still Have A Chance: Milwaukee hasn’t missed the postseason since 2017, and their four-season streak of making it to the playoffs is in obvious jeopardy. But the situation isn’t hopeless. The Brewers have nine games remaining on the schedule. All nine will be played at home, with seven of the nine coming against losing teams Miami (four) and Arizona (three.)
And the Milwaukee rotation is healthy again, with starters Freddy Peralta, Eric Lauer and Aaron Ashby having returned from the IL since Sept. 21.
“Look, we give ourselves a chance on this homestand,” Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said. “We’re going to have to win a lot of games, there’s no question about it. But we’re capable of it, and the fact that we’re at home is a good thing.”
The Brewers are 42-30 at home this season. That includes a 7-4 home record in September.
Wild Card Odds: The first-place Mets have a one-game lead over the second-place Braves in the NL East, but both teams are a lock to make it to the postseason. Either the Mets or Braves will be the No. 1 wild card. That leaves three contenders vying for the other two wild–card permits. Via Fangraphs, here are the wild-card probabilities for each team: Padres 92.6 percent, Phillies 86.4%, and Brewers 20.7%.
If the Brewers can go on a charge to get past Philadelphia (but not San Diego) they’d face the Cardinals in a first-round postseason matchup. No matter who the Cards play, the entirety of the best-of-three series will be held at Busch Stadium.
Related Note: the No. 2 wild-card team will have a more difficult postseason path than the No. 3 wild card. The No. 3 wild card draws the Cardinals. The No. 2 wild card will play the Braves or Mets. With all due respect to the Cardinals, the Braves or Mets are tougher opponents. So the No. 2 wild card’s “reward” for a better record than the No. 3 wild card is a series matchup against an opponent that’s superior to St. Louis. And the No. 3 wild-card team with fewer victories than the No. 2 wild card gets to play the Cardinals. Great job, MLB. Here’s a thought: think about putting chimpanzees in charge. They’d work for peanuts and would do a better job.
Pitching Matchups: Tuesday at 6:40 p.m. it’ll be Miles Mikolas for the Cardinals and RH Adrian Hauser for the Brewers. Wednesday at 6:40 p.m. it’s Jose Quintana for the Cardinals vs. RH Brandon Woodruff for the Brewers.
The Brewers Await Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. This will be the final career appearance in Milwaukee for the two Cardinal legends, who plan to retire after the season.
This, from Adam McCalvy’s story at MLB.com:
“Brewers fans have had their differences (to put it gently) with Cardinals mainstays Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina over the years, but here’s hoping the Milwaukee faithful push all that aside to give those stars a proper standing ovation when they visit for the final time this week. Both players are retiring after the season. The Brewers’ front office probably hoped Pujols would carry his quest for 700 home runs into American Family Field to help sell a few extra tickets, but he reached that milestone Friday with a two-homer night at Dodger Stadium.”
When the Brewers played at Busch Stadium earlier this month, shortstop Willy Adames made sure to fly his father, Romulo, to St. Louis to see the games. It;s all in the family. Adames reveres Pujols and gave Pujols a hug when Albert homered off Corbin Burnes in STL’s 4-1 win on Sept. 14.
“You saw the hug?” Adames told McCalvy. “That was a lot of love and admiration. He is a role model for us Dominican baseball players. He is my dad’s favorite player. That’s why I’ve been watching him since I was a little kid. That’s why I brought my dad here to St. Louis, because I wanted to see him here. When [Pujols] got to second, I got goosebumps. I was like a little kid. It was a great moment for me as a Dominican ballplayer. I was enjoying that moment.”
Adames told McCalvy a story about his father’s experience at Busch Stadium. “He was telling me all about it after the game, like he couldn’t believe how people treat Pujols here,” Adames said. “He said, ‘He is a god here.’ I told him, ‘I know.’ It’s just a lot of love for him and a lot of respect.”
At the time, Adames said he was pulling for Pujols to get to 700 homers but politely added that he’d prefer to see No. 700 fly over the heads of a team other than the Brewers. He doesn’t have to worry about that. Pujols got the two homers he needed for 700 on Friday night at Dodger Stadium.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.
“Seeing Red,” my weekly podcast on the Cardinals with Will Leitch, is available on multiple platforms including Apple and Spotify. Please subscribe.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
Please email your “Ask Bernie” questions to BernScoops@gmail.com
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.