PITTSBURGH -- Not only did the Cardinals lock up the NL Central title last week, but they also did it in Milwaukee in front of the rival Brewers -- winners of the division last season.
The Cardinals, the NL’s No. 3 seed, will face the sixth-seeded Phillies in a best-of-three Wild Card Series that begins Friday at 2 p.m. ET at what figures to be a raucous Busch Stadium.
If Cardinals-Phillies in the postseason feels familiar, it’s because those two titans squared off in the 2011 NL Division Series. Chris Carpenter fired a three-hit shutout and the Cards defeated Roy Halladay and the Phils 1-0 in the winner-take-all Game 5. St. Louis went on to win its 11th World Series crown, while Philadelphia went the next 10 years without making the postseason.
Now, they will meet again in what figures to be a closely contested series that either team could theoretically win.
Here are some frequently asked questions the Cardinals need to answer before the playoffs start on Friday:
What could the postseason roster look like?
C: Yadier Molina, Andrew Knizner
1B: Paul Goldschmidt
2B: Brendan Donovan
SS: Tommy Edman, Paul DeJong
3B: Nolan Arenado
LF: Corey Dickerson, Juan Yepez
CF: Dylan Carlson
RF: Lars Nootbaar, Alec Burleson
DH: Albert Pujols, Juan Yepez
Starters: Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, José Quintana, Jordan Montgomery
Relievers: Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, Dakota Hudson, Steven Matz, Jordan Hicks, Andre Pallante, Zack Thompson or Chris Stratton
When do the playoffs begin and who will the Cardinals be facing?
The best-of-three Wild Card Series between the Cardinals and Phillies presented by Hankook Tire will be played Oct. 7 (Friday) and Oct. 8 (Saturday), and Oct. 9 (Sunday), if necessary. The higher seeded Cardinals will host all three games at Busch Stadium. Times have yet to be set for the three games.
As the winner of the NL Central, the Cardinals will have the No. 3 seed and will host the No. 6-seeded Phillies. St. Louis went just 3-4 against Philadelphia in the regular season, but the club won the final two meetings at Busch Stadium in mid-July. Of major issue for the Cardinals: Phillies ace Zack Wheeler didn’t just win two games against St. Louis, he didn’t allow an earned run in 14 innings.
Which potential playoff foe has Albert Pujols hit the best against this season?
Pujols, he of the 703 home runs, has defied the odds and defied Father Time this season. Incredibly, the 42-year-old slugger will go into the season finale with 24 home runs and 68 RBIs in his final season.
Pujols was 4-for-13 this season against the Phillies, with three of the hits (one a home run) coming in a dramatic, come-from-behind 4-3 win on July 10.
What injuries/issues do the Cardinals need to figure out between now and the start of the playoffs?
Reliever Jordan Hicks (right arm fatigue) will likely return to the active roster on Wednesday and be ready for the postseason, but outfielder Tyler O’Neill (left hamstring strain) likely won’t be ready to return by Friday. Hicks was a weapon late in the season with a power sinker that regularly resides in triple digits. O’Neill, who has battled two hamstring injuries and shoulder and wrist issues, won’t be on the roster if he can’t steal bases and use his Gold Glove defense. The Cardinals don’t need a DH -- Pujols has that covered -- and O’Neill will be held out until the Division Series if his hamstring keeps him from playing defense.
St. Louis avoided a potential injury catastrophe on Tuesday when lights-out closer Ryan Helsley caught a liner but used his pitching hard to stabilize himself when he staggered. Helsley ended up jamming the middle finger on his pitching hand and left Tuesday’s game as a precautionary measure. However, the injury isn’t thought to be serious and it didn’t require X-rays or imaging.
The final bullpen spot could come down to a decision between rookie lefty Zack Thompson, hard-throwing lefty JoJo Romero and Cabrera. All three have swing-and-miss stuff, but Cabrera likely gets the nod if his velocity is once again in top form.
What could the pitching rotation look like for the playoffs?
This area could lead to some sticky decisions for manager Oliver Marmol and pitching coach Mike Maddux because of some recent trends -- both good and bad trends.
Adam Wainwright, a franchise fixture for nearly two decades and the pitcher the team has wanted on the mound in big spots for years, struggled mightily down the stretch. While battling “dead arm” for the first time ever in September, Wainwright got shelled in five of his last six starts and admitted that he likely pitched himself out of the rotation.
Meanwhile, Quintana and Flaherty have hit their strides at the right time. Since coming to the Cardinals, Quintana is 3-2 with four quality starts and a 2.01 ERA. He recently limited the Dodgers to just five hits in 6 2/3 scoreless innings, and he’s been sharp in recent tune-up starts down the stretch. Also, he’s allowed just one home run as a Cardinal. As for Flaherty, he struck out five Reds on Sept. 16 and nine Padres on Sept. 22, giving the potential dominant swing-and-miss that the staff often lacks. On Tuesday, Flaherty showed off his versatility by pitching out of the bullpen -- a role he very well could fill in the postseason.
Mikolas was the Cardinals’ best pitcher most of the season before wobbling in late August and September. However, he has looked strong down the stretch and is a contender to pitch Game 1 of the playoffs. Montgomery was a candidate for that spot when he started 5-0 as a Cardinal, but he’s fallen on hard times of late when he’s been inconsistent with his command, and he’s had trouble, giving up too many home runs.
Who would the Cardinals play if they win the Wild Card Series?
The Dodgers locked up the NL’s No. 1 seed two weeks ago when they defeated the Cardinals. As for the No. 2 seed, the Braves locked that up when they swept the Mets over the weekend and then beat the Marlins on Tuesday.
If the Cardinals survive the Wild Card Series, they will face the NL East champion -- the second-seeded Braves -- in the NLDS. St. Louis lost three of four in Atlanta, but the club won two of three at home against the Braves in late August.
Games 1, 2 and 5 of that best-of-five series would be on the road for the Cardinals.