St. Louis Cardinals: 5 Ways to Win the NL Wild Card
The St. Louis Cardinals don't want to admit it, but winning their ninth NL Central title may not be in the cards this season.
That's what happens when the top team in baseball, the Cincinnati Reds, plays in your division.
The Reds boast a league-best 66-43 record, including a 20-5 mark since the All-Star break.
During that stretch, the Redbirds have found catching up games in the division to be nearly as difficult as catching Usain Bolt in a foot race.
Nevertheless, a team that found themselves 10 games back from the Atlanta Braves on August 27th last season before going on to win the World Series, is not going to give up.
The Cardinals currently sit only 2.5 games back from a wild card spot, trailing the Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates.
While Lance Berkman's nagging knee injury and Chris Carpenter's season-ending surgery have given "Cardinals Nation" cause for concern, there is still hope for the defending champs.
Here are five ways the Cardinals can make the playoffs.
1. Keep the Big Bats Hot
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As the weather in St. Louis will continue to be hot throughout August, the Cardinals hope the same can be said about their biggest bats.
Left fielder Matt Holliday has been on fire recently, swinging one of the hottest bats in the MLB for more than a month and a half.
Holliday had his best month of the season in July, hitting .363 with seven home runs and 22 RBIs. He continued his success into the month of August with two home runs and five RBIs against the Colorado Rockies on August 1st.
Yadier Molina has been a staple of the Cardinals offense. The once offensively-challenged catcher is having his best season to date, hitting .316 with 16 home runs and 54 RBIs.
World Series MVP David Freese has also been hot of late, hitting .458 with an on-base percentage of .562 in the month of July.
The Cardinals would like to see Carlos Beltran heat up down the stretch. Beltran ranks first in the National League with 78 RBIs this season, in addition to his 26 home runs (second in the NL).
Beltran cooled off drastically in July, hitting only .200 for the month. However, the All-Star outfielder is getting his swing back, extending his hit streak to eight games, while adding his second home run in three days Monday night against the San Francisco Giants.
The MLB's highest scoring offense will need these guys to keep up the pace if they'd like a chance to defend their title.
2. Have the Starting Pitchers Finish Strong
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Despite injuries to Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia, the Cardinals starting rotation has done just fine this season.
July was one of the best months for the group, as all but one game included a quality start from a Cardinals pitcher.
Kyle Loshe was a big reason for that, going 4-0 in six starts last month.
Loshe is having one of the best seasons of his career, improving his record to 12-2 with a 5-0 victory against the Milwaukee Brewers on August 5th. Loshe ranks fourth in the National League with a 2.79 ERA.
The performances of Lance Lynn and Adam Wainwright have also been key.
Lynn started the season with an 8-1 record, before hitting a wall in the month of June (2-3, 5.67 ERA). However, the 25-year-old appears to be on his way back to form, posting a 3-0 record and 2.63 ERA in July.
Coming back from Tommy John surgery has been a roller coaster ride for Wainwright, which is evident by his 9-10 record this season. But recently there have been more ups than downs.
Wainwright is looking more and more like his old self, shutting down the Brewers in his last start on August 4th.
It was the Cardinals' bullpen that carried the load last postseason. Now, it's on the starters to get the Redbirds back in the playoffs.
3. Bridge the Gap Between Starters and Boggs/Motte
Mitchell Boggs' facial hair was fantastic last season. More importantly, his pitching performances this season have been even more fantastic.
Serving as the Cardinals setup man, Boggs has not given up a run since June 12th, stringing together 23 straight scoreless appearances.
According to stlcardinals.com, he is the first Cardinals right-handed pitcher to have such a streak since 1918.
Boggs currently boasts a 1.51 ERA, and is a big reason why the Redbirds are 54-2 when taking a lead into the 8th inning.
Closer Jason Motte has also done his part, giving up only one run since July 1st.
However, part of the Cardinals' problem this season has been the unreliability of the middle relief.
Manager Mike Matheny needs someone he can trust to bridge the gap from the time he takes the ball from his starter until the lights-out combination of Boggs/Motte hits the field.
New addition Edward Mujica just may be the guy. Mujica has pitched four scoreless innings since joining the club after a trade with the Marlins.
To acquire the reliever, the Cardinals had to ship away former first-rounder Zach Cox.
For that price tag, general manager John Mozeliak better hope Mujica can fill the void.
Additional help from Marc Rzepczynski (4.79 ERA) and Fernando Salas (4.76 ERA) would be nice too.
4. Take Care of Weak Opponents
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Quick, name two players on the Houston Astros.
Not so easy, huh? What should be easy, though, is for the Cardinals to take care of business against the MLB's worst team.
Luckily for the them, they still have nine games against the Astros, giving them a spoon-fed opportunity to catch up in the standings.
By no means is the remaining road going to be easy for the Redbirds. According to espn.com, the Cardinals' average remaining opponents' winning percentage is .492 (as of 8/6/2012).
Both the Braves and Pirates have lower percentages, making the "gimme games" all the more important.
Many times a playoff berth can ride on the outcome of one or two games. The Cardinals can't afford to mess around with these teams if they'd like to play in October.
5. Get Healthy for the Final Sprint
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It is said that baseball is a marathon, not a sprint.
Tell that to the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals who needed to turn on the jets in September to put together an 18-8 record and secure a wild card spot.
With what appears to be a tight race ahead, the Redbirds will once again need to dash to the finish line.
This won't be easy, however, without key players being at full strength.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Jamie Garcia's return is just weeks away, as the lefty will make his third rehab start on Thursday. If fully healthy, Garcia will be a big addition to the Cardinals rotation.
Lance Berkman may not be earning his one-year, $12 million contract this season, but the Cardinals will surely need him healthy to make a push down the stretch.
Berkman was placed on the DL for the third time this season with a nagging knee injury. The "Big Puma" had surgery on his knee in May but has yet to fully recover.
Berkman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he expects to play again this season, but is unsure if he will make it back in August.
The Cardinals should be careful not to rush Berkman, as their most important games loom at the end of the schedule.
Having Berkman and Garica healthy by mid-September should be the goal, as the Cardinals will likely be fighting for their postseason lives in their final two home-stands against the Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds.