Cards Finish Off Sweep of Astros; Gain Real Breathing Room

It may not have been the prettiest game any of us have ever seen -- or the prettiest the Cardinals have played -- but it got the job done. 

The Cards finished off a three game sweep of the Houston Astros yesterday at Busch Stadium behind a shaky-but-effective Jaime Garcia pitching performance and some rather impressive brinkmanship from the bullpen, along with just enough timely hitting in the form of Allen Craig and a pinch-hitting Carlos Beltran

It capped off a brilliant run for the Cards against Houston at home this season, as the Redbirds finished up a perfect 6-0 playing the Astros at Busch Stadium. The Astros are a very bad team; we all know this. Even so, to shut a team out like that is impressive, and certainly helped the Cards out significantly in the win column this season. (And, let's face it; this group needs all the win help they can get.) 

More importantly, the win yesterday gave the Redbirds some real breathing room in the their quest to hold on to the second and final National League Wild Card spot. How much breathing room, you ask? Well, not enough to collapse the last two weeks of the season. But enough that barring something horrifying, I do believe this team is going to make the playoffs. 

As of this moment, the morning of the 21st of September, 2012, the St. Louis Cardinals have a 2.5 game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers, and a 3.0 game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Both the Dodgers and Cardinals have twelve games remaining on the schedule, while the Brewers have thirteen. 

While the Cards were taking care of their business the last three games, putting away the worst team in the big leagues, the Dodgers, who I personally believed to be the bigger threat all along, were struggling against the Washington Nationals, dropping two of three in Washington. The Brewers, to their credit, swept the free-falling Pittsburgh Pirates, and have been on a pretty remarkable run of late. Even as good as the Brew Crew has been the last couple weeks, though (they've gone 10-2 in their last 12 games), time just isn't on the side of the teams doing the chasing here. 

We've come to that point in the season when it's fair (not to mention easy), to start going through the little if-then record statements. To wit: if, over the final twelve contests of the season, the Cardinals play just .500 ball, then the Dodgers would have to go 9-3 just to tie. The Brewers would have to go 9-4. Of course, that's much more comforting in the case of the Dodgers, seeing as how they've been largely treading water since September began; the Brewers have been playing at better than a 9-4 sort of clip lately, which is a little more worrisome. 

Still, Milwaukee isn't going to continue playing better than .800 ball the rest of the season. Why? Well, because they are about to embark on a rather nasty seven game road trip which will take them to Washington for four games and then to Cincinnati for three. Both the Nationals and Reds have sewn up playoff spots, which could certainly cause either or both teams to take their respective collective feet off the gas pedal, but both are still extremely tough clubs. I don't see the Brewers going 6-1 in this next stretch of games. 

Meanwhile, the Cardinals do have to head out on the road themselves, but they get the much easier task of taking on the Cubs and Astros for six games. Milwaukee's next two opponents have winning percentages of .611 and .607; the Cards' next two opponents are at .387 and .320, respectively. The Redbirds do still have both Cincinnati and Washington on their own schedule before the end of the season, but have the advantage of playing both teams at home. 

Don't get me wrong; this isn't a sure thing yet by any means. If there's anything we've learned from watching this particular Cardinal team for the past 150 games, it's that this is a squad capable of imploding at the worst possible moments. Even so, this team stands in much better shape than I thought they had any chance of at this point in the season, thanks to a combination of playing just well enough and some truly lackluster teams chasing them. If they can manage to play even just decent baseball for two more weeks, it would take a near-miraculous finish by another team to catch them. 

It's been very tough to be optimistic about the Cardinals for much of this season. After 150 games, though, it finally looks like we might really have a reason. 

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