Five months into their season, six weeks into a second half in which they had been the National League’s hottest team and a mere week into Mike Shildt’s tenure as their full-time manager, the St. Louis Cardinals’ season hit another crisis point.
Bud Norris, their closer all season, suffered back-to-back meltdowns in the heat of a playoff race, and Shildt, facing the biggest test of his brief managerial career, suddenly shifted to something resembling a closer-by-committee system, with Jordan Hicks and Carlos Martinez each earning saves this week, as the Cardinals clung to a wild-card spot.
“You want straightforward answers that I just can’t give you,” Shildt said of how the ninth inning will shake out the rest of this season. “I wish I could tell you.”
This is life in the NL four weeks from the regular season’s finish line: a messy, teeming free-for-all among eight teams — all of them flawed in some way, and none deserving to be called great — for five playoff spots.
Putting aside for a moment the Chicago Cubs — 83-57 entering the weekend, good for a 96-win pace — the second- (Milwaukee, 79-62) through eighth-place (Philadelphia, 73-66) teams in the NL’s overall standings are separated by a mere five games. Some have even begun dreaming up hypothetical (but not entirely unimaginable) eight-way-tie scenarios that would require an unprecedented and byzantine untangling by Major League Baseball to sort out.
Unlike the powerhouse American League — where all five playoff teams are virtually set, and the only race with even a hint of drama is the AL West, where Oakland remains within stalking distance of Houston — the NL features a half-dozen or more games every night dripping with playoff implications. That includes the NL West, where 2 ½ games separated first-place Colorado from third-place Arizona entering the weekend, and where the Rockies, Diamondbacks and second-place Dodgers play each other 16 times in some combination over the final 3 ½ weeks.
The NL simply doesn’t have anybody that can match the at-least-on-paper brilliance of the three AL superteams: the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Astros, all of them on pace for 101 or more wins entering the weekend. The best team in the NL, the Cubs, would probably be no better than fifth — behind those three teams, plus the A’s — on any logically reasoned MLB power rankings.
But even the Cubs have their problems and flaws, beginning with the fact that closer Brandon Morrow, who put up a 1.47 ERA and converted 22 of 24 save opportunities in the first half, hasn’t pitched in a game since mid-July and is perilously close to running out of time to become a roster consideration for October. He hasn’t so much as thrown off a mound since a bullpen session Aug. 18 but is scheduled to throw another bullpen session Sunday at Nationals Park, before the Cubs’ game against the Washington Nationals.
With a healthy Morrow replicating what Aroldis Chapman gave them in 2016 and Wade Davis last fall, the Cubs might possess the pieces necessary to rise above a mediocre set of NL contenders and measure themselves against those AL superpowers. At their best, they are the class of the league.
Instead, the Cubs have had to rely on Pedro Strop and Jesse Chavez as their closers; both have been excellent — with Strop getting the win and Chavez the save in the Cubs’ 10-inning victory over the Nationals on Thursday night — but using them at the end of games has weakened the Cubs in the seventh and eighth innings.
With postseason baseball increasingly becoming a game of bullpens, the Cubs need all the lockdown arms they can get, and Morrow — who famously saw duty in 14 of the Dodgers’ 15 playoff games last fall, including all seven in the World Series — would be a boon to the Cubs’ bullpen in October, if he can make it back.
If not, the Cubs would be in the remarkable position of heading into October without any of their three major offseason pitching acquisitions — Yu Darvish (injured), Tyler Chatwood (ineffective) or Morrow — on their playoff roster.
As for the Cardinals, they are in a perilous spot, trailing the first-place Cubs by five games and the second-place Brewers by a half-game in the NL Central entering the weekend and facing a brutal closing stretch of schedule, in which 13 of their final 16 games are against NL playoff contenders, including three games at Wrigley Field on the season’s final weekend.
But to make the playoffs, the Cardinals don’t have to win the NL Central — they merely have to win, figuratively speaking, the NL West. In other words, with their lead over the Dodgers for the NL’s second wild card at two games entering the weekend, the Cardinals’ primary task is to remain afloat as the three NL West contenders beat each other up. If St. Louis stays ahead of the West’s second-place team, regardless of where they fall in the Central standings, they will almost certainly make the postseason field.
With the NL’s best record since the all-star break — 30-16 entering the weekend — the Cardinals believe they have the firepower for a deep run in the postseason. They may not know who would start their playoff opener (probably rookie Jack Flaherty) or close their first postseason win (probably Hicks), but they have plenty of hard-throwing arms to shuttle between roles with some creative game-planning.
“As opposed to some past years for us, where a Chris Carpenter or an Adam Wainwright was clearly our horse and the guy we’re going to ride, this is more of a team effort,” Cardinals General Manager Mike Girsch said this week. “A lot of them have moved in and out of the bullpen as needed. We don’t have a guy who’s going to finish in the top three of Cy Young voting. We don’t have a guy with that kind of season or that kind of career behind him. But we have a whole bunch of guys who keep us in every game we’re in.”
Flawed but dangerous, pressed by one crisis after another, capable of either a deep run or an early flameout. If that’s the state of the Cardinals in the waning weeks of the season, it is also the state of the entire National League.