As The Cardinals Enter The Final Stretch, Here Are 5 Simple Keys To Winning The NL Central Division

Let’s keep this simple. The Cardinals have a helluva chance to win the NL Central for the first time since 2015. It’s been a long time.

Only six players from that 100-win team in ‘15 are still wearing the Birds on the Bat: Yadier Molina, Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter, Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha.

As the Cardinals open a three-game series in the absurd, loony, performance-enhancing, fake-offense setting of Coors Field in Denver, they have 19 games left on the regular-season schedule.

That’s 19 games to claim a division title that fell into enemy hands in each of the past three seasons.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the wild card here. There is absolutely no reason to look at STL’s wild-card picture.

This is all about winning the division. This isn’t about scrounging for a lottery ticket, hoping to get lucky. And should the Cardinals fail to capture the NL Central, there are no excuses.

The Cardinals had an off day Monday. The Cubs were in action, on the road at San Diego, and began a four-game series by thumping the Padres 10-2.

The Cubs got a boost from rookie shortstop Nico Hoerner, who spent the season in Class AA baseball. With the Cubs running out of shortstops because of injuries, Hoerner suddenly surfaced and pounded the Padres for three hits and four RBIs in his noisy and timely major-league debut.

So as play resumes Tuesday night, the Cardinals have a four-game edge on the second-place Cubs, and are six games above the third-place Brewers.

The latest Playoff Odds Report at FanGraphs give the Cardinals a 78.5 percent shot of winning the division — followed by the Cubs at 18.5% and the Brewers at 3%.

So what must the Cardinals do to get this done? Again, let’s keep it simple. There is no reason to engage in idiocy here by overreaching for too many factors that simply aren’t all that relevant.

Accordingly…

1. Just keep doing what you’ve been doing, Cardinals. They’re No. 1 in the NL and No. 2 in the majors with a 37-18 record since the All-Star break. They’ve won 23 of the last 30 games.

The Cardinals are 13-3-1 in 17 second-half series. They haven’t lost a series, home or away, since dropping five games in a row on a skittish trip to Oakland and LA (Dodgers) that ended Aug. 7. The Cards haven’t relinquished a series at Busch Stadium since Houston came in and won two out of three games back on July 26-28.

Keep going. Keep doing what’s taken you from 44-44 at the All-Star break to the league’s best record since July 12.

2. The pitching must hold up. It can’t crack. It can’t unravel. Can’t collapse. For the season, the Cardinals’ run prevention ranks 5th overall, 2nd in the NL. Since the All-Star break the pitchers and an excellent defense has combined to allow only 3.5 runs per game. (This includes all runs; the Cards have allowed only 12 unearned runs in 55 second-half games.

Through Monday, the Cards had given up the fewest runs among the 30 MLB teams since the All-Star break. Their second-half RA total, 193, is 14 runs less than Houston’s 207.

3. The Cardinals’ bullpen must close strong. And I’m not talking about the designated closer who saves games. The St. Louis bullpen has performed forcefully and valiantly this season. But an extra-busy schedule — and increasing fatigue among some relievers — has led to a 5.33 bullpen ERA this month. That ranks 25th in the majors and 12th in the NL for September. It’s a small sample, sure. Does manager Mike Shildt have enough fresh bullpen arms for a successful final push?

4. The St. Louis offense can’t be a substantial liability. Let’s be candid here: we can’t count on the STL offense to jump on teams and roll up big runs-scored totals. It may happen at Colorado, the home of fraud offensive stats. But the Cards will face some of tough pitching over the final 16 games.

Wouldn’t it be nice for Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna to team up for a fantastic, ferocious finish? Since the All-Star break, the Cardinals have lagged in their production from the No. 3 and No. 4 lineup slots combined, ranking 11th in the NL in slugging (.463) and 12th in OPS (.786) in those spots. Granted, Ozuna missed several weeks with a hand injury. But his bat has been quiet for a while.

5. Mental toughness: learn from the past, and apply the lessons. The Cardinals have a recent history of fading late in the season, but it’s not as if the same 25-man roster stalled out in 2016, 2017 and ‘18. The cast is changing, evolving. And I believe scar tissue can be a positive element. Younger Cardinals who have felt the anguish of late-season disappointment can put those experiences to good use and strengthen their collective resolve.  But yes … mental toughness is a necessity.

Oh, yeah … one more thing: The Cardinals and Cubs will clash seven times in the final 10 days of the campaign. So beat the damn Cubs, OK?

Actually the Cardinals have to fare well against all other opponents. Because the Cards can’t afford to flop in their remaining series against the Rockies, Brewers, Nationals and Diamondbacks. The schedule is about to take a tough turn.  The Cardinals have to be tough enough to handle it.

Thanks for reading …

-Bernie