A few weeks ago, I asked a simple question: could fans trust this St. Louis Cardinals team? Fast forward to the present and that question doesn't have a clear answer.
At the time, the Cardinals were in the early stages of an eight-game winning streak, but they would follow that up with nine losses in their next 15 games. Now, they've won five of six games on a west coast trip through the putrid areas of the league in San Francisco and San Diego. It's like being in a talent show if your mom was the only judge: impossible to mess up.
Weeks later, we have no answer to that pertinent question that I dropped on fans — but the upcoming schedule should provide these resilient Redbirds with a chance for redemption and a legit late push.
After tonight's finale with the Padres, the Cards will finish their 2017 regular season schedule with 22 straight against their own division. You get the sweet cake walks against the Reds and Pirates as well as key matchups with the Cubs and Brewers. Only the Cardinals can mess this up. Up to this point, they have — posting a 23-32 record against their divisional opponents.
In order to have a shot at catching the Cubs or the Colorado Rockies (more on them in a bit), the Cardinals have to beat their own division. It's an absolute must. Last season, during a playoff push, the Cardinals struggled with divisional play and couldn't win at home enough. It hindered them and kept them a single game away from a wildcard entry one game playoff.
The Pirates and Reds come to Busch Stadium starting tomorrow for six games. Afterwards, you get the Cubs in Wrigley and visit the Reds in Cincinnati before finishing off the last road trip of the season in Pittsburgh. Then, it's four with the Cubs in St. Louis and three against the Brewers.
The Reds are a bad team record wise, but they've won three in a row, so it won't be easy. The last time the Cardinals played Pittsburgh, they split a four game set, leaving the Bucs breathing in the standings. The Reds haven't been to Busch for a series since the end of April. The Brewers were down and out a month ago, but are back in the race, taking a series from St. Louis and splitting another a week ago. The Cubs took a painful series in Wrigley in late July, so there's some steak left on the plate there to finish.
The idea here is simple: avenge some mid-season futility against beatable teams and set your own fate. If the Cardinals take care of business against feeble teams, the playoffs are their own. And no right-minded Cards fan should NOT want their team to make the playoffs. That's foolhardy to carry a mindset of wanting your team to miss the playoffs to force certain moves. I'm tired of hearing that. Trust me that a progression of change in this team has already begun, with the in-season moves of Jhonny Peralta, Matt Adams, and Mike Leake.
The offseason will include a shift to younger talent in the field and on the mound, so consider 2017 once last ride with Mike Matheny's Immortals (name the movie reference, I dare you).
In order for that idea to become a reality, a few things need to happen. And thank you for making it 400 words into the article before I actually get to my point.
He needs to do more of what he did Wednesday night, which was hit a game-winning, two-run home run late. It's been a tough year for the young outfielder. He signed a big contract and saw his lovely mother diagnosed with ALS. The burden of pressure is enormous for a guy who lets his actions (not emotions) do the talking. Talking about whether he should play or not is about as useful as asking if Yadier Molina has to hit fifth. If he is healthy, Piscotty will play. Before this week, he wasn't hitting well and his defense wasn't great. That must change.
Play Jose Martinez
If Matt Carpenter isn't 100 percent, sit him down and roll with "Cafe". Getting on base is nice, but when you have Kolten Wong back and Harrison Bader lighting up pitching at the top, resting an ailing Carp is justified, and it allows a white hot Martinez to play. This guy is unbelievable. In around 300 at bats, Martinez has 13 home runs, 13 doubles, and a .311 average. After ten years in the pros, he's killing it in the Majors. Play the hot bat and accept his alright defense at first base.
FIND a closer and stick with him
I vouched for John Brebbia two weeks ago, but the Cards aren't going in that direction, but they must stick with a guy. How about Tyler Lyons, who has allowed seven hits since the All Star Break? He's your best reliever, can handle the innings and the pressure, so ride with him. He closed it last night and should have closed it this past Saturday. Closer by committee doesn't work. Find a guy.
Lean on Juan Nicasio
The newly acquired right-hander can't pitch in the playoffs due to a late acquisition, so put that arm to use. Don't overcook young Ryan Sherriff's arm or push too hard on Matt Bowman. Let this guy be your 2017 version of Octavio Dotel. He burns lefties to the mark of a .200 batting average. Use him like a cast iron skillet. Rinse, wash, cook, and repeat. No dishwasher required. The bullpen needs a new engine.
Be careful with Adam Wainwright
The right-hander is throwing again and may find game action, but the Cardinals have to be careful. Do you let him play hero and make another start? Do you let him relieve? Young Jack Flaherty labored through five innings Wednesday night, but struck out a plateful again. Interesting thought process ahead with Wainwright.
One more thing. Does Mike Matheny deserve national praise if this team makes it? No. Let's count up how many games he has cost the team over the past six months and not just stare at the last week or so? I'm not backing off my piece from Sunday about giving this guy the exit no matter what. Making the right moves for this guy is more like getting out of his own way when it comes to game management.
Also, find a lineup and stick to it. Is that alright? Hopefully one that doesn't have Alex Meija and Greg Garcia both on it.
Here's the thing for this team: Beat up the bad teams and hang with the good ones. There are no great ones left on the schedule. The Rockies get Los Angeles and Arizona, so their handle on the second wild card spot will weaken. The Cards get one last series against the Brewers and two against the Cubs, so both the division title and wild card are in play.
I've counted this team out several times, but they won't go away. They are resilient yet untrustworthy. With 23 games left, predictions are fleeting with this Cardinals team, so don't even try.
One thing is for certain. The Cardinals control their fate this season. Take care of business or go hunting early for a second straight season.
I'll see you at the ballpark...lounge.