ST. LOUIS — Welcome to St. Louis sports, where nothing is easy ... like ever.
Before Friday night's game began, the St. Louis Cardinals had a chance to bury the Milwaukee Brewers into a third-place resting place. The Brewers were hot, but the Cardinals had first place and home-field advantage. The stage was set, and then it was wrecked.
After a dominating 10-0 victory on Friday, the Cardinals lost the next two games, keeping the door open for the Chicago Cubs — who took care of business with a Pittsburgh sweep — and the Brewers with 13 games left on the schedule.
Here are my five takeaways as I pop open a brand new bottle of Russell's Reserve bourbon to ease the pain of defeat.
5) Jack Flaherty is actually human
Saturday night, he allowed as many earned runs (3) as he had in his past eight starts. A misplaced fastball over the heart of the plate wasn't missed by Mike Moustakas, and Milwaukee never looked back, winning 5-2 with ease. This isn't faulting Flaherty, but merely stating how grand his right arm has been for the Cardinals, and reminding you of the dangers that may come if he falters even a little.
Of course, the Cardinals could score him a few more runs this week. Flaherty will start the first game of a pivotal as coffee in the morning series in Chicago on Thursday.
4) Carlos Martinez's absence stings the nostrils
Take the closer out of a bullpen and things can quickly derail. The Cards' bullpen has been stout for most of 2019, but there are tiny cracks appearing as the final month turns the corner. A 3-2 game became a 5-2 game on Saturday due to Tyler Webb. A Cardinal lead turned into a 7-6 game due to a seven-arm bullpen faltering late. Martinez spent Saturday night in the hospital due to some kind of respiratory infection/breathing issue. Without him, Junior Fernandez, who pitched a perfect ninth Saturday, served up a game-winning grand slam to Ryan "it was the lab guy's fault" Braun.
Martinez's return is uncertain. He was starting to settle into a dominant rhythm when he went down. If he misses a lot of time, the starters need to start going deeper than 5-6 innings.
3) Harrison Bader is a maddening hitter
The defense is elite. The bat is something else. Bader is hitting .234 overall in September. He has 18 strikeouts and 11 hits. Sunday, he jacked two monstrous home runs to give the Cardinals a pair of leads. He also had an issue in center field with Dexter Fowler, but that's another paragraph. Bader has days where he looks capable of hitting, and others where even a journeyman slider can make him look like an 18-year-old wannabe searcher. He went 1-10 with six strikeouts in one three-game stretch and then 3-7 the next two games. He's hitting .213, slugging a bit, but still a risky bet at the plate.
2) Mike Shildt pressure cooker managing is scary
Any manager can look good during a winning streak. When your team wins 10-3 or 10-0, you can sit back and recant that time in A-ball when an MLB job was only a fever dream. When things are going south, you trip over the railing heading towards the field. Shildt made a flurry of questionable bullpen moves this weekend, starting with letting Junior Fernandez pitch a high leverage ninth inning. I don't care where the lineup stacks. Save your best arm for last. That's Giovanny Gallegos. Don't argue with me. There were others. Shildt shows shades of Mike Matheny as the wrong times. He's still learning, but the curve needs to speed up.
Mr. Shildt, don't forget about those expanded rosters, pal.
1) Kolten Wong consistency
Over the past six years, Wong has shown flashes of goodness and been a streaky hitter without putting it together for a long stretch. That's changing this season. He went 5-12 against Milwaukee, slapping baseball everywhere and running like a mad man. He went deep into the hole Saturday night to make a tough play look easy. He could have sent a text while completing the glove and throw method. Wong is slashing .351/.419/.508 since the All Star Break. Add stellar defense to that and it's the complete package.
The Cardinals are 83-66, sitting two games ahead of Chicago and three ahead of Milwaukee. They get Washington for three games, and then the Cubs for seven of the remaining ten with a trip to Arizona stuffed in between. They control their own destiny, especially with those Cubs match-ups. If they fall, it's on their own two feet. They've made a stirring comeback this season, but it means nothing if the division isn't won. At this point, a wildcard berth is pure disappointment.
They are doing it the hard way. The same as any St. Louis sports team has done in the past decade. Up, down, up, and all around.
There are 13 games left and no time can be wasted. The Cubs and Brewers are knocking on the door for an upset. Will St. Louis hold them off? For the sake of downtown, I sure hope so.