St. Louis has a day off on Monday, and then it can punch its miraculous ticket to the postseason in front of an expected raucous Busch Stadium on Tuesday night, with the Brewers -- who were crowned as the NL Central champions on Sunday in Milwaukee -- playing as visitors.
Via a historic streak -- the longest in franchise history and the longest by any NL team since 1951 -- the Cardinals have catapulted from fringe contenders to needing to simply stave off a cataclysmic breakdown in the final six games to make it to October.
The Cards have swept four series in a row (two straight series of four games on the road), including their rival Cubs in their final homestand at the Friendly Confines. They have won in vastly different ways, seizing the home run ball in Chicago but winning on a wild pitch on Sunday. And they have won at a time no more crucial than any other on the calendar.
This is the longest win streak in September since the Cubs rattled off 21 in 1935, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Encompassed in St. Louis' streak has been the Cardinals’ final 11 road games of the season, making them the second team in MLB history to win its final 11 or more road games (also per Elias). They join the 1887 Philadelphia Quakers in that honor.
“We love to win baseball,” manager Mike Shildt said. “It’s Cardinal baseball.”
If the Cardinals get their wish -- and they are incredibly close to seizing it -- their next road contest could be the NL Wild Card Game. To qualify for that truism -- and a one-game matchup with either the Giants or Dodgers -- the Cards need to simply win one more game.
If recent history is any indicator, that challenge should not be an issue.
“We're really locked in,” said catcher Andrew Knizner, who scurried home for the game-winning run on a wild pitch in the ninth inning. “We're playing good baseball, we're playing all the way through the ninth inning until the last pitch.
“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.”
To find themselves in such a fortunate position as they flew back to St. Louis on Sunday evening, the Cardinals leaned on Jake Woodford, who’s been tossed between the Majors and Minors this season, to start. They found run support from Paul Goldschmidt and Harrison Bader home runs, the latter going yard in the eighth inning to tie the game heading into the final frame.
In the ninth inning, the Cards scored two runs and saw a game’s worth of animation pour out of the dugout due to an infield fly call -- all without any balls leaving the infield.
The Cardinals take what both playoff-bound and rebuilding teams give them, and they don’t relinquish it -- no matter who they plug into the lineup.
“That’s what good teams have,” Shildt said. “Good teams that have a deep roster of guys who can contribute. What I love about our game is [that] you never know who's going to be on the mound. You don’t know who’s going to take the at-bat, you don’t know who [it’s] going to be hit to. We prepare for everything.”
The Cardinals long believed they were a good team, setting out this season with a World Series on their mind, an eight-time Gold Glover in Nolan Arenado joining the fold at third base and a perennial NL MVP Award candidate in Goldschmidt, across career years up and down the lineup. They have taken a circuitous path to now inch closer toward a chance at their goal.
St. Louis wanted the divisional crown, but it will settle for one of the two Wild Card spots if it means the Cardinals simply find a ticket into October. They can turn that dream into a firm possibility at Busch Stadium on Tuesday.
The Cardinals have found victory in miraculous ways, in inventive ways and in opportunistic ways. It’s anyone’s guess when they might not win again.