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Series sweep gives Cards leg up in homestretch

St. Louis has favorable schedule compared to other NL Central contenders

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Cardinals earned themselves an advantage in the NL Central this weekend with a truly outstanding performance and a sweep over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The schedule for the remainder of the regular season will provide another advantage for the Cardinals.

The way they played this weekend, they may not need help of any sort. The Redbirds turned a 1 1/2-game deficit into a 1 1/2-game lead, outscoring the Pirates, 26-10, over the three-game series.

After Adam Wainwright had shut out the Pirates on two hits over seven innings on Saturday night, rookie starter Michael Wacha did exactly the same thing on Sunday on the way to a 9-2 victory. In what had been a battle for first place, the Cardinals didn't leave any real room for doubt.

Still, there are 19 remaining games. Twelve of those will be at home for the Cardinals. They will play only three games against a team that currently has a winning record. And that team is the Nationals, who are just four games over .500.

The other two Central contenders, the Pirates and the Reds, will play each other six times over the last nine games of the season. The Pirates also have a three-game series at Texas starting Monday. The Rangers are contending for the AL West title or a Wild Card spot.

No matter how it gets sliced, the remaining schedule appears to give the Cardinals an edge. But they have been handed nothing. Their play over 143 games has put them in first place. And their play over the last three games has been particularly emphatic in establishing themselves at the head of the class.

The Cardinals have typically done a commendable job of keeping themselves in the moment. The triumphs over Pittsburgh occurred on the heels of a 2-5 road trip. Not carrying any unnecessary baggage, from either defeat or victory, is a reflection of what their approach is supposed to be.

On the matter of the standings, for instance, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is basically having none of it, first place or not, with three weeks left in the regular season.

"We don't make big deals about the standings," Matheny said. "We make a big deal about the level and caliber of play that we have and the expectation of how we should be going about it."

In the same vein, Matheny is a truly strict constructionist on the one-game-at-a-time approach. He was asked before this series started how "big" the series was. It might have looked large to the outside world, but the Cardinals skipper prefers his baseball in one-game doses.

"I can't believe you guys keep asking me this," Matheny said with a smile. "I'm not going to change it now. We've got a game tonight to play our best. Right now we control this one and it needs to be the best game we've played all year. Tomorrow night, same thing. It's a boring answer, man, but it's the one we're going to stick with all the way."

The concept of the seemingly favorable schedule doesn't do much for the manager, either, although he does acknowledge that his players should not miss out on the time-honored tradition of scoreboard-watching.

"I don't want these guys to deny themselves the privilege of being in the race and keeping track of this stuff and getting caught up in it," Matheny said. "It's special to be in September and right there. If you take it for granted I believe you're disrespecting the game because it doesn't happen all the time.

"With that being said, I'm still going to redirect my thoughts and try to brainwash them into doing the same. OK, we control our destiny, not what happens on the scoreboard to other teams. It's so cliché to say, but I believe it 100 per cent. You talk to the guys who have done this successfully and they believe it, too."

With the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds in a terrific race, Matheny was asked if the notion of the other two teams playing a more difficult schedule, including head-to-head matchups, was "overblown."

"Whether it's overblown for the masses or overblown for us is two different questions," the manager said. "I think for the masses, no it's not overblown, it's exciting. But I think it's more of a mind game for us. It really doesn't matter to us. We'll be watching but it could be something that hurts us more than helps us. Ideally, you just watch the [other] two teams beat each other up. But you never know how it's going to play out."

One thing is certain. The Cardinals have put themselves in the position that every team wants to be in for the final weeks of the season.

"October baseball is what it's all about," Matheny said, "but next to that is September down the [stretch] and watching yourself and the people around you come together and make a good, strong push. That's as good as it gets in this game."

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
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