We’d like to welcome the Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers to September baseball. The final month of the regular season begins Sunday. Buckle up. We’re in for a wild ride.
The pressure is on.
— For Milwaukee, it’s the pressure to survive the erosion of the pitching staff, a .500 record since the All-Star break, the injury-related struggles of center fielder Lorenzo Cain, and a growing deficit in the NL Central standings.
— For the Cubs it’s the pressure of expectations. The franchise won the World Series in 2016. That epic triumph was was supposed to mark the beginning of a Cubs dynasty that would lead to two, maybe three, World Series championships. It hasn’t happened. The Cubs are good, but underachieving, and the currents of change are swirling. If the Cubs fail to overtake the Cardinals and win the NL Central, manager Joe Maddon will likely get the heave-ho. With the Cubs likely to spend more than $200 million on player payroll this season, ownership would be livid over another October disappointment.
— For the Cardinals, the pressure is felt in three areas:
1. A franchise downturn and the failure to make the postseason for three consecutive years.
2. Missing the playoffs, in each instance, by choking in each of the past three Septembers. Here the Cardinals are again, leading the division by 1 and ½ games, with a chance to get it right this time.
3. Management’s decision to stay outside of the the trade-deadline market on July 31. For the fourth consecutive summer, the Cardinals’ front office declined to make a meanining move to boost a contending team.
Management’s passive approach may not matter; the Cardinals are 16-10 since the deadline passed on the afternoon of July 31. The Cards have played terrific baseball since Aug. 9, winning 15 of their last 19 games.
But if the Cardinals suffer through another September collapse, owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak will encounter plenty of criticism … though the temperature of the protest wouldn’t be as intense as in some other markets. The pudding-soft St. Louis sports media will hold its collective punch and provide at least some cover for the Cardinals’ appreciative bosses.
In that regard, the Cardinals have less pressure than the Cubs –simply because the level of media and fan accountability is much lower here than in Chicago.
These three teams will largely be defined by how they handle pressure during the final month.
“We’ve talked about it before: September provides its own energy,” Maddon told reporters earlier this week. “August, man, you got to find it sometimes. We have taken 5,727 swings each, at least. Maybe it’s 10,000, I don’t know. I don’t know how many throws they’ve made. I don’t know how many videos they’ve looked at. I don’t know how many data sheets they’ve read.
“By this time of the summer, it’s got to be at least 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical. Maybe 75-25. You get to this point, it’s all mental over physical.”
A Closer Look at the Cardinals:
I’ll keep it simple, but here the factors that will go a long way in determining the success, or failure, of the September 2019 Cardinals:
♦ The offense must click. Can’t continue to squander the good pitching that’s been supplied consistently for most of the season.
♦ They best hitters must lead the way. The stars gotta be stars. We’re talking about Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, Paul DeJong, Dexter Fowler, Yadier Molina, Kolten Wong — and, if he has enough left in the tank, Matt Carpenter.
♦ On the starting–pitching side, Miles Mikolas has to deliver a strong September to join Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson and give the Cardinals three consistently effective starters.
♦ The Cards’ run prevention has been nothing short of outstanding. In the NL, only the monstrous Dodgers have allowed fewer runs per game (3.85) than the Cardinals (4.15.) But because of weakness in the back end of the rotation, the bullpen will likely be under more duress in September. Manager Mike Shildt has done a wonderful job in the area of bullpen tactics to compensate for the team’s rotation vulnerabilities. That must continue, but at least Shildt will have more arms on call when the Cardinals (and all MLB teams) can expand the roster starting on Sunday.
♦ Shildt has to play his best position players and not get caught up in concerns over tender feelings. Winning is the only consideration, the only priority. Shildt has been doing much better lately in separating the personal from the professional. He can’t relapse.
* Not that anyone of sound mind expected the Cubs to go away quietly, but they’ve made it clear that they’re going to stay close and turn up the heat on the first-place Cardinals in the NL Central race. After getting swept by the Nationals in a three-game home series last weekend, the Cubs ventured onto the road to play the Mets.
* Given Chicago’s horrendous road showing — 25-39 entering the week — you’d think the Mets would have the advantage at Citi Field. And that’s especially true considering that the Mets had starting pitchers Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom lined up to confront the Cubs.
* To their credit, the Cubs went into NY and bashed the Mets’ three starters for 17 earned runs, seven homers, and a .687 slugging percentage over 16 combined innings of work. That’s a 9.56 ERA. The Cubs won all three games, making it five consecutive wins on the road.
“The biggest thing is coming into New York and facing Stroman, Syndergaard and deGrom,” Cubs pitcher Jon Lester said after his team’s 4-1 on Thursday. “That’s big for us, especially our hitters. It’s a big confidence booster for those guys.”
* With the conquest of the Mets, the Cubs reduced the Cardinals’ division lead to 1 and ½ games. The Cardinals led the Cubs by 3 after winning at Milwaukee Tuesday. This shape of this race continues to change quickly.
* NL Central Schedule, Part I: the Cardinals begin their final 30-game push this weekend with four at home against the Reds … the Cardinals will have 17 home games, and 13 on the road, the rest of the way … and the Cards will compete against division opponents in 17 of the 30 final games…
* NL Central Schedule, Part II: according to FanGraphs the Cardinals have the toughest remaining schedule among the top three NLC teams, taking on teams that have a combined .509 winning percentage … Brewers’ opponents have a combined .500 winning percentage … the Cubs remaining opponents collectively have a .497 win pct.
* NL Central Schedule, Part III: the Brewers and Cubs will play a three-game weekend set at Wrigley Field … the Cubs will play their next five games at home, with the Mariners coming in for two following the Brewers-Cubs series … That includes 15 at home, starting with a quick stop home for five games against the Brewers and Mariners … the Cubs are 44-22 at Wrigley this year … the Cubs have 29 games remaining on the schedule; all but six are will be played against NL Central opponents… it breaks down this way for the Cubs: seven against STL, seven vs. the Brewers, six with the Pirates, and three vs. the Reds… of course the Cubs and Cardinals will battle it out seven times in the final 10 games of the season…
* NL Central Schedule, Part IV: This will be a critical stretch for the Brewers, who trail the Cardinals by 5 and ½ games, and the Cubs by 4 games, in the division standings. (Milwaukee is also 4 games out of the second wild-card spot.) Take a look at the Crew’s next nine games: three at Wrigley Field, two at home vs. the Astros, four at home against the Cubs … the Reds have listed (in order) starting pitchers Trevor Bauer, Tyler Mahle, Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo to go against the Cardinals this weekend… at Wrigley Field this weekend, the pitching matchups will be (in order) Chase Anderson vs. Jose Quintana; Zach Davies vs. Cole Hamels; Gio Gonzalez vs. Yu Darvish.
Thanks for reading and have a safe and peaceful Labor Day Weekend.