ST. LOUIS — Would they do it any other way?
The St. Louis Cardinals came into Tuesday's game with the Arizona Diamondbacks comfortably ahead in the National League Central Division, leading the Milwaukee Brewers by 3.5 games.
When Jack Flaherty throws the first pitch Sunday afternoon, they'll be desperately hanging onto a one-game lead in the division with the new pests in town, the Chicago Cubs, looking to swing a wrecking ball through St. Louis' division title hopes.
You see, this team does little the easy way. They don't take smooth roads, opting for the off road variety of bumps, cracks and obstacles. The 2019 Cardinals are about as predictable as the construction schedule for Interstate 44. Right when you think things are in order, the car flips off the road.
It started with Andrew Miller giving a game-changing ninth inning home run on Tuesday in Arizona, forcing the contest to last 19 innings and seven hours, thus draining the Cardinals' bullpen. The Diamondbacks prevailed 3-2 early Wednesday morning, and then won later that night, 9-7.
The Cubs came limping into town, with Joe Maddon set to start the "B team." Two games later, that lesser group of Chicago players have taken the first two games of the series, beating the Cardinals 8-6 on Saturday night in excruciating fashion. They jumped Adam Wainwright for six runs and four home runs, and threw a couple hits on the burnt arm of Miller that meant the difference in the game later on.
Since the Colorado Rockies worked some magic in the mountain by taking the first two games of their series with Milwaukee, the Cardinals still stand in first place as game No. 162 commences.
It really doesn't make any sense that the final day of the season will begin with St. Louis in first place. The Cardinals lack depth in their rotation, rarely getting 7-8 innings from a starter. Their bullpen is mostly toast, with Miller, John Gant and John Brebbia getting beat up lately. The dynamic Giovanny Gallegos also has shown humility in recent weeks.
The lineup can't muster enough offense, striking out a ton this month without much production from their lineup outside of Tommy Edman. Dexter Fowler, Marcell Ozuna and Harrison Bader can give a clinic on how not to get a hit, while Paul Goldschmidt can't buy a timely hit. Matt Carpenter looked solid before striking out four times Saturday. Paul DeJong hit a home run, but hasn't looked great since May. Yadier Molina can only do so much with a bat, which can include warning track power.
Mike Shildt can't work up the nerve to deviate from a set-in-stone plan to keep Bader in the lineup, leaving Randy Arozarena on the bench. He left Wainwright in too long on Saturday and will not adjust his lineup one bit. He's showing the stubbornness that got Mike Matheny fired. Shildt will go from genius to mind-numbing frustration inside 24 hours.
I don't want to be told to calm down and appreciate 90 wins. This roster was constructed to win at least 90 games before it took half a season off, falling below .500 and nearly out of division contention. Once again, the high payroll and high profile acquisitions of Goldschmidt and Miller warrant better results. There shouldn't be an "expect less" sign on the front of Busch with a team putting up 22 sellouts and 3 million bodies in the seats. A record of 90-71 isn't good enough.
Today, Flaherty will try to right the ship, even if he has to go at least eight innings, collect a couple RBIs and steal the lineup card from Shildt in the process. The phenom is the hottest arm in baseball since July, compiling a post All-Star break ERA of 0.97. The 23-year-old's overall WHIP is 0.99 and he's struck out 225 batters.
You couldn't ask for a better ace in the hole, but he'll need help.
He surely won't allow eight runs like each of the previous two games, but how much support can the team offer him?
Flaherty will need a couple hits with runners in scoring position. He'll need Arozarena to start in center and spray the baseball everywhere. He'll need Ozuna and Fowler to not be utterly worthless. Goldschmidt needs to resist hitting into an ill-timed double play, and they need Edman to keep on being superhuman.
RELATED: Can Jack Flaherty get some help?
The rookie is slashing .441/.522/.797 in his last 30 games, collecting 40 hits. Edman doesn't walk, but with a swing like he's carrying right now, why keep the bat on your shoulders? For Edman, it hurts not to swing, and it kills the lineup's chances of producing runs. Since he can't be cloned, the other seven guys need to do something worthwhile with a bat in their hand.
If it's okay, Miller can stay in the bullpen. Thanks.
It's not asking too much, right?
Derek Holland, St. Louis' old foe from the 2011 World Series, will oppose Flaherty. He has only seven starts this season and hasn't done so in many weeks. It's a bullpen game for the Cubs with arguably the best pitcher in baseball on the mound for the Cardinals.
You know what's better than scoreboard watching? Winning your own game.
All the Cardinals have to do is win on Sunday to secure the division and a first round matchup with the Atlanta Braves.
It may seem easy, but for the 2019 Cardinals, it truly never is.