This might very well be the most critical and telling week of the St. Louis Cardinals’ long regular season.
And less than halfway into it, they have already made a statement that is ringing across the National League Central.
The Cardinals, the defending division champions, completed a sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday with a walk-off 1-0 win in a game that dripped with tension and felt like autumn minus the decorative red, white and blue bunting.
The win pushed St. Louis’ division lead to three games as it travels to Milwaukee to face the second-place Brewers in a four-game series starting Thursday. That game will also feature Michael Wacha on the mound for the Cardinals for the first time since June 17.
“The last three games felt like the playoffs,” Yadier Molina, who scored the winning run to finish off the Pirates, told Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com. “The next four, the next eight, they're going to feel like the playoffs, too. The whole month is going to be the playoffs for us.”
Wednesday’s game certainly had that kind of intensity. It was ripe with bench warnings, a fastball behind the back of a superstar and an umpire stepping between St. Louis’ home bench and a Pirate leader as they screamed at each other to “shut up.”
The Cardinals seem to have these kinds of problems with everyone in their division, mainly the other three contending teams—the Pirates, Brewers and Reds. The whole thing started with Pittsburgh starter Edinson Volquez hitting Matt Holliday and Matt Adams in consecutive at-bats in the fourth inning, which seemed far from intentional.
But the Cardinals are the Cardinals, so they retaliated in the sixth when Shelby Miller threw a pitch behind Andrew McCutchen.
St. Louis reliever Carlos Martinez struck out McCutchen in a 10-pitch at-bat in the eighth with a runner in scoring position, with the bad blood already boiling. Martinez came off the mound pumping his fist and beating his chest, the kind of exploits the Cardinals have always taken exception to in the past.
Now the Cardinals take their show on the road to Miller Park to face a team with which the bad blood has been several years in the making, coming to the forefront during the 2011 postseason when players from each side traded insults through the media.
With that kind of intensity and passion likely to be present over the weekend, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more unkind interaction between these clubs as they battle for the division in the final month.
More important than the extracurricular stuff, though, are the directions these contending teams are headed in.
The Cardinals and Brewers were tied for first place when play started Monday, and the Pirates sat two games back headed into these last three games. This sweep of the Pirates pushes the Cardinals to a season-high 13 games over .500 and gives them five consecutive wins. This comes as Molina is back in the lineup after a thumb injury and with Wacha (2.79 ERA, 134 ERA+) headed back to the rotation.
Meanwhile, this sweep gives Pittsburgh four consecutive losses as it is now five games back in the division. Even with a soft schedule directly in front of them, the Pirates are likely done after this visit to St. Louis.
That leaves the Brewers as the lone team with a realistic shot to get between the Cardinals and the top of the Central. The problem is, the Brewers have squandered a 1.5-game division lead by losing their last eight in the midst of St. Louis’ hot stretch.
The Brewers have led the division for nearly the entire season, spending 159 days in first place before surrendering their grip Monday. It’s gotten so bad that even-tempered manager Ron Roenicke held a team meeting before Tuesday’s game, which ended in a 7-1 loss to the last-place Chicago Cubs.
“It will turn,” Roenicke told Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I still think we have a good streak in us. We’re going to need to have one…”
… Soon. Or else this division race is over. If the Brewers lose three out of four over the weekend in their own building, they would find themselves five games out as the Pirates do now—but with fewer games to play.
This statement sweep by the Cardinals is big, and the Brewers not having won since Aug. 25 is bigger. But this division can still be dramatic, because the Cardinals, even though they seem to be beating up the world right now, are not the model for consistency.
Bernie Miklasz wrote as much at STLToday.com on Tuesday, saying:
The Cardinals' starting-pitching ERA (3.35) was ranked 5th in the majors before the All-Star break. And after the All-Star break their starting-pitching ERA (4.29) ranks 24th.
The Cardinals' offense slummed near the bottom of the MLB ranking for average runs per game for a large section of the season -- but since July 31st the Cardinals rank 6th in the majors with an average of 4.48 runs per game.
We will have our drama in the Midwest if both the Cardinals and Brewers find normalcy by the end of the weekend. But as of now, the Cardinals have their inkpad open and, with a successful rest of the week, can drop their stamp on this division.
Anthony Witrado covers Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. He spent the previous three seasons as the national baseball columnist at Sporting News, and four years before that as the Brewers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.