Streak over, Cards focused on Oct. sequel

St. Louis has to-do list ahead of NL Wild Card Game showdown

September 30th, 2021

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals would have loved to have seen their historic winning streak close out the end of the regular season before their date with the Giants or Dodgers in the National League Wild Card Game, but a 4-0 loss to the Brewers at Busch Stadium on Wednesday night dashed such hopes. Instead, this year’s club will have to settle for the longest in franchise history (at 17 games) and the longest single-season streak in the National League since the 1935 Cubs.

This winning streak, ending with three earned runs charged to Miles Mikolas in his last tuneup before October, is what catapulted the Cardinals to the postseason. They’ll settle for it ending now in exchange for a chance to bring back something all the more valuable: a World Series trophy.

Behind Mikolas played an upside-down lineup, one that saw five regulars on the bench (two due to nagging injuries) and Lars Nootbaar leading off for the first time in his career. With Matt Carpenter playing third, José Rondón at second and Jack Flaherty coming out of the bullpen, the Cardinals will use the final five days to tinker with their roster and get bench players at-bats in order to ready the entire roster for a do-or-die game in California.

It’s a rare comfort -- “I didn’t know it was legal,” quipped manager Mike Shildt -- to have such luxury in the season’s final few days. The past two seasons, the Cardinals waited until the final day of the season to learn their exact postseason fate. They needed a historic stretch to make it so -- a stretch that can be one-upped only by one that may be coming.

“That was a cool run,” Shildt said. “But let’s start another one.”

Here are four things the Cardinals need to do to set themselves up for an October sequel:

1) Align their pitching
Shildt on Wednesday afternoon teased that the Cardinals’ brain trust will have a conversation with Adam Wainwright to map out his close to the season. By the time of a postgame announcement in the press box, those plans were solidified.

Wainwright will be skipped in his final turn through the rotation, originally scheduled for Game 162 on Sunday, ending his immaculate regular-season campaign and all but ensuring that he will take the ball in the Wild Card Game. Dakota Hudson, who was named starter for Friday’s series opener against the Cubs, could pitch in relief on four days of rest behind Wainwright, on top of other arms who will be monitored down the stretch.

All of this maneuvering has been made with the goal of making the club as flexible as possible for the one-game playoff.

2) See what they can uncover on the pitching side
The biggest questions the Cardinals face on their roster, pitching-wise, lie with Flaherty and Hudson. Shildt has expressed tepid optimism for each, as both right-handers are returning from lengthy injuries. This past week has featured the first time of tinkering.

Whereas Hudson has prepared as a starter, Flaherty, pitching out of the bullpen for the second time in his big league career on Wednesday, worked around a hit and a walk for a scoreless frame. Most notable about the outing was that he did not come out for a second inning after needing 17 pitches for his lone frame. The Cardinals are in a wait-and-see mode for him down the stretch.

“We're in a balancing act there, and we're going to continue to figure out what that looks like. We're not going to push to push,” Shildt said. “… We also recognize that we're about to head to the postseason and it's time to put the guys out there that can help us the most. Jack is clearly a guy that can help us, but we've got to make sure we are carrying a group that doesn’t have a lot of limitations in that setting.”

3) See what they can uncover, positionally
Expect to see lineups with Carpenter, Nootbaar and Rondón over this final week, as the Cardinals both give at-bats to players who haven’t gotten them consistently and give some rest to abate the typical wear and tear their regular starters endure.

Shildt, though, preached that there’s not much to truthfully uncover, fully knowledgeable about the roster -- and the versatility of the roster -- he’s been prescribed. So Rondón’s nifty catch in the eighth inning, for example, was of less surprise. Nor are his three pinch-hit home runs on the season.

4) Rest up
Two of the players sitting on the bench on Wednesday night were there due to injury. Yadier Molina (right shoulder) and Edmundo Sosa (left wrist) have been battling nagging ailments that originated from the weekend in Chicago. Both are not said to be serious ailments, with Molina and Sosa candidates to return in at least some capacity for the final series against the Cubs.