As the end of 2012 season sneaks ever closer, the St. Louis Cardinals find themselves in an interesting position.
While they are not sitting on top of the NL Central, they are within striking distance of the Cincinnati Reds. After Sunday's extra-innings loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Cardinals are seven games behind the Reds and 2.5 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Expecting the Cardinals to repeat the amazing run they had in August/ September 2011 is not realistic. What happened in 2011 was amazing to watch, but it was the exception, not the rule.
While it's still mathematically possible for them to make a run for the division title, the more realistic option is that they push into one of the two wild-card spots.
As of right now, the Cardinals are tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers, 2.5 games behind the Pirates with six games to go in their season series.
The following are several reasons the second wild-card spot is the most realistic goal for the Cardinals at this point.
While it wouldn't be impossible for the Cardinals to overtake the NL Central-leading Reds, it's not going to happen very easily.
The Reds have the easiest schedule among division foes for the remainder of the year, and there is little reason to expect them to falter on a large scale. It's possible, but not likely.
Of course, last week's five-game skid couldn't have been predicted either. As Cardinals fans know well, anything goes in September and October.
In the remaining weeks of the season, the Cardinals and Reds will face off six more times. The games won't be easy for either side, but will serve as telling signs for how things will end up between them.
It could even come right down to the end because the two teams will face off against one another for their final series of the year at Busch Stadium.
All season long, baseball fans and pundits have awaited a major collapse by the Pirates. Now it's mid-August and they aren't showing any signs of faltering in the near future.
The 64-50 Pirates have one thing on their side. It's been so long since they've made the playoffs, that little has been expected of them. There's been no pressure because there were no expectations.
The 2011 Cardinals weren't expected to do much either which that fed their drive to succeed more than anything else.
I'm not ruling out the possibility of the Pirates overtaking the Reds before it's all said and done.
The Cardinals polish off their season series against the Pirates Aug. 27-29. These two series could have a huge impact on how the second WC spot looks when the season is over.
It's a huge opportunity for both teams. The Cardinals have a chance to take over the spot, but the Pirates also have the chance to put serious distance between their closest competitor.
The competition is fierce, but the 2012 Cardinals will not go down quietly.
All season long, this team has dealt with adversity. Despite the losses of Lance Berkman (multiple times), Chris Carpenter, Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, Jon Jay, Kyle McClellan, Jaime Garcia and others, the team has persevered.
It's by sheer miracle that they are sitting as high in the standings as they are. There's an important reason for that—young guys have stepped up.
Lance Lynn has done a fine job of weathering the storm of the Chris Carpenter loss. Joe Kelly has held things together in Garcia's absence. Craig made fans virtually forget that Berkman wasn't in the lineup. Matt Carpenter, thanks to his diversity on the field, has helped out everywhere imaginable.
As long as there is a fighting chance, this team will push forward. It's seemed like in 2012 they perform better with their backs against the wall. We'll soon see if they can keep up that trend.
If the Cardinals plan to make the postseason at all, they're going to have to start converting tight games into wins on a more consistent basis.
The team has been rough in one-run games and in games that go into extra innings. Those losses are the ones haunting the Cardinals as they attempt a playoff run in the final weeks of 2012.
No less than a dozen games were theirs to win, but they struggled to come through. This problem haunted them particularly bad early in the season when they were still on top of the NL Central as well.
While it's definitely a problem, hope is far from lost. Many of the key players in 2012 have valuable experience from 2011 and the ones that do can help the young guys keep focused.
The Cardinals schedule will be tough, but it is manageable. They will face the Washington Nationals, Dodgers, Reds, Pirates and Mets. The hope is that series with Milwaukee, Chicago, Houston and San Diego will help to give them some breathing room.
If the Cardinals can make some headway in the 12 games with the Pirates and Reds, the entire NL Central standings could look different at the end of September.
The Cards has a definite shot at one of the WC spots, but they still shouldn't be ready to concede the division.