ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals went from barely sniffing the National League Wild Card chase, to making it seem like they would need all 162 games to clinch a berth to now potentially having a week to set themselves up for the NL Wild Card Game. Sixteen consecutive wins -- a historic, remarkable pace -- will do that.
Win one more win -- or one loss each by the Reds and Phillies -- the Cardinals would clinch the second Wild Card berth in the NL. That celebration could come as soon as Tuesday. The Wild Card Game won’t take place until the following Wednesday, Oct. 6.
With all that in mind, here’s what to watch out for in the final week of the season:
What’s left to clinch?
A playoff berth. The Cardinals have the inside track for the NL’s last ticket into October, their magic number at just one with six games remaining. No matter what, if they make it, they will find themselves on the road for the Wild Card Game, as the eventual NL West runner-up (either the Dodgers or Giants) is guaranteed to host.
Who are they trying to fend off?
The Phillies and Reds are each facing an elimination number of one, meaning they’d have to win out and the Cardinals would have to lose out in order to catch St. Louis. And if that happens, it would merely result in a Game 163 tiebreaker. That would require a remarkable run by the trailers and a catastrophic collapse for the Cards. The Phillies, though, could still catch the Braves and win the NL East.
After a clinch, what’s left to watch for?
How might the Cardinals set themselves up for the Wild Card Game? They have the luxury of altering their pitching plans to best suit their needs, possibly playing only one more meaningful game before the close of the regular season. They’re going to go full-bore until they clinch, as to not leave anything up to chance, but with time on their side, the Cardinals have the opportunity for strategy. Who might they rest in the field?
Are there any injuries to monitor?
Edmundo Sosa avoided a fracture but was struck flush on the outside of the right hand/wrist area in Game 1 of Friday’s twin bill in Chicago. The Cardinals hope he can return by the start of their final homestand on Tuesday, though in what capacity is to be determined. Dylan Carlson has also been given some extra rest, and Jon Lester was paid a visit on the mound by the trainer on Saturday, ditching his breaking pitches and flashing some velocity lower than his season average.
How might they tackle pitching?
All season, the Cardinals “honored the off-day,” meaning they would not bump anyone up in their rest schedule despite a baked-in day away from action. That washed away in this campaign’s final stretch, as the club kept veterans Adam Wainwright and Lester on strict five-day schedules and adjusted the rest of the rotation appropriately. But now St. Louis might elect to skip each of their last starts of the season and employ some sport starters to allow an extended rest ahead the postseason. As it stands, Wainwright will start Tuesday’s series opener and is lined up for Game 162. Lester is facing just one more start.
Such starts could also go to Dakota Hudson and Jack Flaherty, who’ve each pitched just once in September due to injuries. Flaherty, returning from a right shoulder strain, threw only 19 pitches on Saturday in his first game back. Hudson made his first appearance since Tommy John surgery in September 2020 in relief of Flaherty, throwing 3 2/3 solid innings. He’s built up to less than a full starter’s workload, but he can pitch multiple innings. Flaherty is not likely to come out of the bullpen, and Hudson is a good bet to pitch behind him in a piggyback role.
How’s their confidence?
“It's an incredible feeling. It’s a complete elation of knowing every time we come to the field that we’re going to win. It’s that confidence -- I don’t want to say arrogance -- but it’s almost that motivation every time we come to the field. We’re expecting to win, and we’re rising to the occasion when we need to.” -- reliever T.J. McFarland
“We never feel like we're out of the game, and I think when you look at the entirety of the season -- I think we played good baseball, we just had to put all phases together. I think finally, now maybe at the most important time of the season, we're putting everything together.” -- catcher Andrew Knizner