Simple plan, hard to execute: Score more vs. Cards
Bucs, Cubs at Busch next six days to try to figure out how to attack St. Louis
The Pirates have gone 23-12 since July 26, and all it has gained them against the Cardinals is one-half game in the standings. Perhaps the recent trend -- losing four in a row, including being swept in Milwaukee -- is somewhat understandable, as it must be draining to play so well and get so little out of it.
As for as the NL Central goes, the Cubs can certainly relate. They've gone 23-10 since July 29, and while it has established them as favorites for the second Wild Card spot, all it has gotten them in the division race is one game. They have gone from 11 1/2 back to 10 1/2 back.
"It's been kind of a rugged stretch,'' Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "We've played well and they don't want to really relent.''
No, they don't.
Worst of all for the Pirates and the Cubs, they know that if they are going to go anywhere in the postseason, they're going to figure out something that they haven't been able to do: beat the Cardinals.
Barring a drastic shift in the Central's balance of its formidable power, the Pirates and Cubs will meet in the NL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, most likely in Pittsburgh, and the winner then will face the Cardinals in the Division Series. This assumes that St. Louis finishes as the No. 1 seed in the league, and that seems a fairly safe assumption, even after you acknowledge that the Pirates still have an outside chance to achieve their 2015 goal, which was to win a division title after back-to-back Wild Card seasons.
The next six days should be especially interesting, as the Cardinals host the Pirates in a three-game weekend series before the Cubs come to St. Louis for a three-game series.
In addition to trying to make up ground in the short run, Clint Hurdle's team and Maddon's team will be looking for edges that they can use in October.
Mike Matheny has the luxury of starting to get the Cardinals set for the postseason even though it's just early September. He gave 23-year-old Carlos Martinez some extra rest before his scheduled start Friday night against Pittsburgh's J.A. Happ, and is doing the same with 24-year-old Michael Wacha,, who was set to start Wednesday but instead will next go on Tuesday, against the Cubs.
So how do you beat the Cardinals?
The answer's going to seem overly simple, but you score runs -- four runs, five runs, even more if you can. That's how you do it.
How do you score those runs? That's the hard part. But you've got to get creative and manufacture some if you don't catch them on one of the rare nights when John Lackey, Lance Lynn, Wacha or Martinez happen to be hittable. You certainly don't try to win low-scoring games against them. The Cardinals have built their 105-game victory pace in 2015 by being unbelievably good at run prevention.
They've not only allowed an NL-low 401 runs -- only 3.01 per game -- but they have an 80-run cushion over the second most efficient team, the Pirates. That's crazy, but that's what happens when your starters (2.83) and relievers (2.34) both have the lowest ERAs in the league.
While the Cardinals' lineup is starting to show signs of getting turned around -- thanks in part to newcomer Brandon Moss hitting four homers in a week -- it has been average all season. The Cards rank eighth in runs and 11th in home runs.
That's where the Pirates and Cubs have an advantage.
Since the All-Star break, the Cubs have ridden Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Dexter Fowler to average 4.6 runs per game, which is fourth in the NL. The Pirates have been equally impressive. The Cardinals meanwhile are 11th, although their 4.3 average is in the same ballpark as the Cubs and Pirates.
Worth noting, however, is the Cubs haven't faced the Cardinals' pitching since early July, before the All-Star break, and the Pirates have played only a three-game series against them. In those games at Busch Stadium Aug. 11-13, the Pirates did take two out of three, and produced four runs in all three games.
The ability to consistently score runs is a common denominator between the three teams that have stopped the Cardinals short of a World Series parade the last three years -- the Giants in 2012 and '14, and the Red Sox in the '13 Series.
In those 18 games, the Cardinals' opponents produced 86 runs -- an average of 4.8 per game (and 1.8 more than the Cardinals are giving up this year). The Giants and Red Sox won by continuing to score when they did early damage.
Consider this: In those three postseason series, the Cardinals were 5-4 when games were decided by one or two runs, and 1-8 in games decided by three runs or more.
So if you want to beat the Cardinals, you bring your hitting shoes. You're not going to out-pitch them, although it won't hurt to have pitchers such as Jake Arrieta and Gerrit Cole.