Defying what most expected from the St. Louis Cardinals, they pulled off a fifth win and to within 1.5 games of the division leading Chicago Cubs.

This is officially a play off race — and one that could get interesting over the next seven weeks.

The Cardinals have 28 games left against their division opponents. The most important of which will likely be the seven remaining against the Cubs.

Just to keep this in perspective, the Cubs still lead the division and it’s in the Cardinals hands to change that. The two teams won’t face off again until September 15, so the only option for the Cardinals is to keep winning these games while the Cubs are struggling. This is their opportunity. If the Cubs start playing better ball, this team can slip down in the standings just as fast as they’ve climbed it.

Coming up Friday, the team will host the Atlanta Braves (51-61). They don’t have to win three games, but they need to win two. The focus needs to be on winning series’ — and they have several that are winnable. After Atlanta, they travel to Fenway Park where they will face a tough Red Sox team for two games. If they can pull a split there, the road gets smoother for a few weeks.

From there, the Cardinals take on the Pittsburgh Pirates who they are 5-4 against in 2017. They follow up with series against the San Diego Padres (50-63), Tampa Bay Rays (58-57), Milwaukee Brewers (59-57), San Francisco Giants (46-70) and the Cincinnati Reds (47-67). This 29-game stretch has lots of opportunities for the Cardinals to continue gaining ground and this is where it needs to happen.

The team’s final 21 games are ALL against division opponents. If they manage to find their way past the Cubs before their next visit to Wrigley Field, it should alleviate some pressure down the stretch.

It’s always better to be chased than to be the chaser. Right now, the Cardinals are chasing a struggling Cubs team — and it’s the Cubs division to lose. If they can’t get things together over the next couple of weeks, they could have a tough time wrapping up this season.

The Cardinals sit 6.5 games out of a Wild Card berth — a feat that would be just obnoxiously difficult at this point. The Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks have put together a strong season and are still playing strong baseball. In fact, they would currently be division leaders in three of the other five divisions.

They’re just stuck behind the Dodgers who are literally on the best run in the history of baseball winning 43 of their last 50 games.
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For the Cardinals, it wins the division or goes home. It’s not going to be easy, but it can be done.
Either way, September is shaping up to be a fun month of baseball in the National League Central. Get ready.

Corey Noles has covered the Cardinals and MLB for a variety of publications and outlets since 2011. Find him on Twitter @coreynoles, or via email at coreynoles@att.net.