ST. LOUIS -- When the Cardinals changed their manager and revamped their roster in late July, the best they hoped for was to be in the position they find themselves in currently: in control of their own destiny, and in a playoff spot, with a week left to play. Now
ST. LOUIS -- When the Cardinals changed their manager and revamped their roster in late July, the best they hoped for was to be in the position they find themselves in currently: in control of their own destiny, and in a playoff spot, with a week left to play. Now comes the hard part.
An all-important final week of the season looms, with six games against the Brewers and Cubs that will determine if the Cardinals can push their way into the postseason for the first time since 2015. They'll enter it rolling, winners of six of seven after completing a weekend sweep of the Giants on Sunday with a 9-2 victory at Busch Stadium. Behind a barrage of offense and a dominant Miles Mikolas, St. Louis kept pace with Milwaukee and Chicago, which both won, and maintained its 1 1//2-game lead over Colorado for the second National League Wild Card spot.
"We feel strong," said Mikolas. "We feel like we're a team that's real dangerous and a team that's going to come out and give a lot of people a lot of trouble."
It is not lost on the Cardinals that they're in that position largely because of Mikolas, who's remained a steadying presence atop their rotation throughout a summer defined by dramatic roster turnover. The righty spent Sunday putting some finishing touches on a stellar first season back from Japan, breezing through seven economical innings for his 17th win. That pulled him into a tie for the NL lead with Max Scherzer and Jonathan Lester. Mikolas also paces the Senior Circuit in walk rate and ranks among the leaders in a slew of important categories: ERA (fifth), innings (sixth) and ground-ball rate (third). Among NL pitchers with at least 25 starts, Mikolas' four losses are the fewest.
"What it means is he's not only giving you a chance to win games, but he's pitching deep into games," manager Mike Shildt said. "He's been a frontline guy for us, given us more than a chance to win every time he goes out there."
When Mikolas makes his next assignment remains undecided, and that's by design. Should the Cardinals surge past Milwaukee and up the NL Central standings this week, he'll take the ball for either of the season's final two games next weekend in Chicago. If they clinch a Wild Card berth by then, the Cardinals could hold Mikolas to start the one-game playoff on extra rest. Either way, they've aligned their rotation so some combination of Mikolas and Jack Flaherty pitch the two most meaningful games of the year, whenever they come.
On Sunday, Mikolas showed why he's part of that calculus. The righty struck out eight against no walks and held the Giants hitless until Nick Hundley rolled a double down the left-field line in the fifth. Mikolas was unscored upon before Brandon Crawford's two-run homer in the seventh and threw a whopping 72 of his 96 pitches (75 percent) for strikes.
"I don't think it's much of a secret anymore," Mikolas said. "I'm coming right at guys. So the ball is in their court."
He benefited Sunday from a bulk of support. Already up by two, the Cardinals concentrated their 12-hit barrage with a five-run sixth that broke the game open. Jose Martinez and Yairo Munoz both collected two hits and two RBIs, Harrison Bader scored twice and drove in a run with a successful squeeze bunt, and Mikolas added a run-scoring single off losing pitcher Andrew Suarez. Matt Carpenter provided insurance with a two-run homer, his 36th of the year but first in 20 games this month.
"We're in a great spot, and now it's just about getting in," Carpenter said. "Tomorrow we have the Brewers, and that's all I'm thinking about."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Long before Carpenter extended his lead atop the NL's home run leaderboard, friends of his from the Giants organization approached him with a message. They believe this Cardinals team, they told Carpenter, is talented enough to win the World Series. For that to happen, St. Louis will certainly need more than it's gotten lately from its leadoff hitter, who carried the Cards through their second-half push but has struggled mightily in September.
Carpenter's 425-foot blast off Casey Kelly marked his first homer of the month, over which he's hitting .178 with three extra-base hits. The stretch mirrors the historically poor start Carpenter got off to in April, before catching fire as the weather warmed. The positive signs he showed Sunday -- Carpenter also made three hard outs prior to homering -- indicate another hot streak is on the way.
Martinez's two-run double in the sixth marked his 29th hit with two outs and runners in scoring position, the most in baseball. He is hitting .468 in those situations, which ties the eighth-best single-season mark (min: 50 AB) ever posted, with Joe DiMaggio in 1940. Pete Rose (1969), Hank Aaron (1964) and Ichiro Suzuki (2004) are among the few who have put together better campaigns in those spots.
HE SAID IT
"We're excited and focused and a lot of emotions, but the biggest one is just focus. We had to take care of business this weekend, which we did. ... These games matter tremendously. The ultimate goal is getting to the playoffs, but you can't get there without taking care of these next six games." -- Bader
St. Louis' hopes of securing a playoff spot come down to the season's all-important final week, a six-game stretch against the Brewers and Cubs that begins Monday at home against Milwaukee. The Cardinals adjusted their rotation to tab Flaherty (8-8, 3.08 ERA) -- who owns a 1.00 ERA across 18 innings against the Brewers this season -- for the opener, set for 7:15 pm CT from Busch Stadium. Milwaukee plans a bullpen game.
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.