St. Louis Cardinals
, as of right this moment, the morning of the 29th of June in the Year of Our Lord 2012, right around twenty after nine Central Daylight Time, are a third-place team. That's kind of depressing, isn't it? Particularly after the blazing hot start to this season, I can't imagine any of us thought the Cards were going to have any kind of trouble winning the NL Central
, and that was probably only the beginning. This team looked like the class of the National League
, to be frank.
And now, after a disastrous May (13-16), and a nearly-completed June that saw the team essentially tread water (13-12, two games left), the Redbirds are looking up at both the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates in the division standings. The Cards are still lapping the field in terms of run differential -- their +69 is tops in the National League by a ridiculous 24 runs, and second-highest in all of baseball -- but waiting for their real-world record to smooth out and start looking more like their Pythagorean is becoming increasingly tiresome. Like I said, it's all very depressing.
But never fear, friends! The next week and a half promises to be very, very intriguing, and could go a long way toward determining what the NL Central race looks like the rest of the way this season.
Beginning tonight, the Cardinals open up a ten game homestand, their longest of the season so far. It also just happens to feature three rather serendipitous matchups for the Redbirds, all of which could combine to make this their chance at rolling off some Ws.
The Cards start off with three games against the Pirates -- ahem, the second place Pirates -- who just happen to currently be a half game ahead of St. Louis in the standings. The Pirates have a record of 40-35, compared to the Cards' own 40-36, but a Pythagorean record of 37-38. (The Cardinals' is 45-31, for the record.) That's right; despite being five games over .500 for the season, the Pirates have been outscored by the opposition overall. They're due for a bit of regression. Pittsburgh has gone 6-4 over their last 10 games. When you get a chance to play the team directly ahead of you in the standings, in your ballpark, you have to take advantage. The Cardinals have a golden opportunity to leapfrog the Pirates here.
After Pittsburgh leaves town, the simply dreadful Colorado Rockies come to town for a four game set. The Rockies are currently 29-46 (that's a .387 winning percentage), on the season, have been outscored by the opposition to the tune of a -58 run differential, and have given up the most runs in all of baseball. The main culprit in their struggles has been an absolutely brutal starting rotation (though an exceedingly young one), that doesn't feature a single pitcher with an ERA+ better than 88 -- and that belongs to Juan Nicasio, who is currently on the disabled list. There's plenty of talent on the Colorado pitching staff, and it should be really good in about two or three more years. Right now, though, the Cardinal offense should feast on the soft, fleshy innards of Rockies pitching for four whole games.
The homestand wraps up with a three game set against the Miami Marlins, who we just saw in Miami. The Marlins' season has not gone quite the way they had hoped, following the monstrous spending spree of this past offseason, as Miami has struggled badly through the first half. The problem is the Marlins simply can't hit; they've scored just 283 runs, leading to a run differential of -66. Only the Cubs and Padres have scored fewer runs than Miami.
So that's ten games in a row, at home, all against teams with negative run differential numbers on the season. The Pirates are the only club of the three above .500; they're clearly the best team of the three, but still very beatable. A 7-3 or even 8-2 homestand isn't at all out of the realm of possibility.
Meanwhile, speaking of the Pirates, after they leave St. Louis they'll head home to play four games against the Houston Astros, who have been very bad for the most part this season but do have enough young talent to occasionally come up with a great series, and then three against the red-hot San Francisco Giants, who recently moved into first place in the NL West. That series against the 'Stros is very winnable for Pittsburgh (but does have the feeling of a potential trap), but that's going to be a tough row to hoe against the Giants.
And what of the Reds, you ask? Well, the Reds are currently out west, having started an eleven game road swing last night with a loss at San Francisco. They have three more games against those Giants, then head to LA for three with the Dodgers, and on down the coast for four at the Padres. The San Diego series is lucky for Cincy, both as a winnable series against an awful team and a much-needed letup at the end of a brutal road trip, but the next six for the Reds are all against two very good teams. (Though the Dodgers are currently mired in a five game losing streak.)
Over the next ten games, the Cardinals will play two of the worst teams in the National League and the team they're chasing in the standings, all at home. Pittsburgh will play the Cardinals in St. Louis then get a beatable Houston club and a very tough San Francisco team at home. Cincinnati has six more games against two above-.500 teams duking it out for the West division lead and then a cupcake series in San Diego. The schedule could probably line up better for the Cardinals, but honestly, not a whole lot. If they're going to make a move to get back to the top of the division, the next ten days may be their best opportunity to do so for awhile.
We'll know a whole lot more about this team and where they stand by the end of next weekend. If they go 8-2 or 7-3, they should pick up a couple games on the teams they're chasing. (Actually, they shouldn't be chasing by then, but rather "be chased.") If, on the other hand, this club can't find some way to pull out a good run through this homestand, while they have ever schedule-related advantage one can think of, then they will have squandered one of the best opportunities they're likely to get. It doesn't mean they can't still win the division -- I think they absolutely still should -- but you can only tread water for so long before your legs get tired and you realise you haven't actually gotten anywhere.
Let's hope the Cardinals start swimming soon.