In the midst of a rare three-game losing streak for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015, the hopes of all those who, justifiably, despise the sight of the franchise’s logo are waxing stronger. Like a desert traveler who stumbles upon an oasis, a vision of the first St. Louis-free Major League Baseball postseason since 2010 is becoming a little less hazy.
While the Cardinals have won just two of their last 10 games and are 3-8 so far this month, the teams chasing St. Louis in the standings have been able to take advantage of the slump. The Chicago Cubs have won seven of their last 10 games and have an inverse record compared to the Cardinals’ so far in September.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are a less sterling 6-4 over their last 10 games and 6-6 so far in September, but they are going for a four-game sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday, Sept. 13. Winning games within the National League Central division has been Pittsburgh’s lone weakness this season, especially against Milwaukee. Completing the sweep of the Brewers would be a sign that the Pirates have cleared that hurdle.
Going into play on Sunday, Sept. 13, St. Louis has 20 games remaining on its regular season schedule. The Cubs and Pittsburgh each have 21 remaining contests. That’s enough games left for both teams to surpass the Cardinals in the NL Central standings if all three trends continue.
Winning three out of 11 games is a winning percentage of .273. Continuing that winning percentage over a 20-game span would give St. Louis a final record of 94-68. If the Cubs and the Pirates also maintain their winning percentages for the month of September for the duration of the regular season, Pittsburgh’s final record would be 95-67, while the Cubs would claim the NL Central title at 97-65.
That’s just one possible scenario in which both the Cubs and Pirates could surpass the Cardinals in the NL Central standings. How likely is that to happen? More likely than St. Louis fans would like to believe.
The main thing that has enabled the Cardinals to be successful until the turn of the calendar to September is their defense and pitching. Suddenly, it seems, those elements have become mediocre at best to this point in the month.
St. Louis ranks 12th in MLB in September in walks per nine innings and eighth in most home runs allowed per nine. The batting average on balls in play against them so far this month is the second-worst in MLB. Nearly a third of runners who have reached base against the Cardinals in September have scored, putting St. Louis at seventh-worst in that category.
Comparing those numbers to the same statistics during St. Louis’ best month of the season so far, June, reveals a regression. The Cardinals had the second-lowest BB/9 and HR/9 in June. They were just outside of the top 10 of MLB in BABIP. They were the best in baseball at stranding runners during the month.
Meanwhile, the pitching for the Cubs and Pittsburgh has remained constant, and in some cases even improved so far this month. The Pirates just got a fresh and healthy A.J. Burnett off the disabled list. The Cubs’ staff boasts the second-best team earned run average, third-best fielding-independent pitching, fifth-best BABIP and eighth-best BB/9 to this point in September. Pittsburgh leads all of MLB in HR/9 and FIP along with possessing the eighth-lowest team ERA so far this month.
If these defensive and pitching trends continue, the probability of those winning percentages being perpetuated goes up exponentially. That’s the situation in the NL Central. St. Louis could find itself slipping from home-field advantage throughout the NL bracket to playing the NL wild card game at PNC Park, trying to advance to play a NL Divisional Series at Wrigley Field.
It could get even worse for the Cardinals, or better for the rest of us, however. St. Louis has not yet locked up a playoff spot, although they are quite close to doing so. Going into play on Sunday, Sept. 13, the Cardinals are 14 games up on the current wild card third-place team, the San Francisco Giants. That means St. Louis has a magic number of seven (combination of either Cardinals’ wins or San Francisco losses) to clinch the second wild card spot at worst.
As mentioned before, if St. Louis maintains its current winning percentage for the month of September, they will record five more wins in the remainder of the season. That admittedly doesn’t leave the Giants much room for error, as they would have to go 19-1 to finish the season ahead of the Cardinals in the wild card race in that situation. More dramatic winning streaks have taken place to finish a season, however. Remember the 2007 Colorado Rockies?
There is also the possibility of St. Louis going 5-15 to end the season and San Francisco going 18-2, which would force a Game No. 163 between the two teams to determine the second wild card. Recent history shows that the Cardinals have had a tough time eliminating the Giants when it comes to the postseason.
If either of those scenarios play out, we could finally have a postseason free of St. Louis’ obnoxious presence for the first time in five years. It seems unlikely, but unlikely results are the most enjoyable when they happen. It would be a September collapse of epic proportion, and that’s exactly the kind of collapse that all those who hate the Cardinals dream of.