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Regular Season Winds Down for St. Louis, Playoff Hopes Loom

St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis fans everywhere collectively held their breath on Thursday night, as they heard news that young Dakota Hudson, one of the Cardinals’ most reliable pitchers this season, would not return to in the third inning to face the Pirates lineup.

Just one day later Hudson hit the 10-day IL with what president of baseball operations John Mozeliak described as “a flexor tendon issue”.

Another injury. Another man up. One more obstacle St. Louis might not overcome as they hope to make the 2020 MLB playoffs.

With Hudson’s injury, and one more scheduled doubleheader with the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis cannot afford to utilize a four- or five-man rotation. Names like Austin Gomber and Jake Woodford headline the list of possible replacements, but the loss of the masterful sinker-baller may prove to be more than the club can endure.

Race to the Finish

Regular Season Winds Down for St. Louis, Playoff Hopes Loom
O’Neill hopes to lead the offense into the playoffs. He has 7 home runs this season.
Courtesy of Chris Lee & St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Through Monday, the Cardinals have won five of their last eight games, taking four from the basement-dwelling Pirates over the weekend. Yet, the road to get there has been anything but stress-free. On Friday afternoon, St. Louis clung to a one-run lead entering the seventh inning of a double-header shortened game. But the club nearly emerged with the loss after two walks, two hard-hit outs, a throwing error and the bases loaded awoke fans’ worst fears during the contest.

In the final two games with Pittsburgh, St. Louis mustered just three and six hits respectively, which was barely enough to edge out the Pirates below-average offense. Again, in Monday’s 4-1 loss to Kansas City, St. Louis recorded just two hits off the Royals’ bullpen, despite the opposing starter being unable to complete four innings.

The Cardinals’ final seven games will come versus the Royals and Brewers, one team unlikely to make the postseason and the other desperately fighting to get there. Still, signs indicate the Cardinal offense may not be effective enough to give sufficient run support. Any kind of run support is enough when the pitching staff is being held together by crazy glue and extra-strength duct tape like it is right now. If St. Louis can find an offensive hot streak, something achieved few times this season, then they will find themselves in the playoffs.

If they can’t work past these issues, fans will be left wondering what this season might have been.

Familiar Faces Return, Just in Time

Dexter Fowler made his return from the injured list on Monday night in Kansas City, nearly three weeks after he went on the shelf with a stomach ailment. The outfielder was in the starting lineup and went 1-for-4 on Monday night. The return is a welcome sight for a St. Louis outfield that has consistently struggled during his absence.

Giovanny Gallegos also returned in the first game of the I-70 series on Monday, the right-hander seeing his first action since a groin strain on September 11. While many different Cardinal bullpen pieces have attempted to close games, Gallegos still remains Mike Schildt’s premiere choice for this duty when healthy. Alex Reyes, Ryan Helsley and Andrew Miller have all split time during Gallegos’ journey to revert last year’s dominant form. The trio has done a decent job but have struggled infrequently.

Gallegos surrendered one run on two hits, a walk and a wild pitch versus Kansas City on Monday.

Of some surprise was Dylan Carlson being recalled on Friday, after he struggled mightily in his first major-league stint. He repaid the vote of confidence with a two-hit game in Friday’s nightcap, including a three-run homer to pad the Cardinals’ lead. The highly-regarded prospect is not assured a spot on the postseason roster, but he will work as hard as he possibly can to earn that right before the season’s end.

Injuries to Molina, Wong Threaten Lineup Consistency

Regular Season Winds Down for St. Louis, Playoff Hopes Loom
Molina barely avoided injury after two hits to his wrist in back-to-back series.
Courtesy of Getty Images & the Sporting News

Yadier Molina‘s bruised wrist and Kolten Wong‘s sore left side seem like the latest indications of how grueling this season has been for the team. Molina’s wrist threatened to keep him out of the lineup after being hit by a pitch a mere days after that same wrist was hit during an opposing batter’s swing. X-rays returned negative, and Molina barely survived an injury that would have sunk the club.

 

 

As for Kolten Wong, the Gold Glove winner had been dealing with soreness in his side for several games before getting a day off on Sunday. The second basemen seemed to think fatigue was a contributing factor to the injury.

And there’s evidence to support Wong’s statement. Playing 23 games in 18 days at one point this season, the St. Louis has endured one of the hardest schedules in baseball from a conditioning standpoint. A final doubleheader, should it be needed for tie-breaking purposes, is scheduled for Monday in Detroit. And with the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers all within one game of each other, that scenario is beginning to look even more likely.

The playoffs similarly will provide little chance to recover from the 60-game sprint. All postseason series are slated to start within two days of a team’s last regular season game. Figure in travel time to neutral sites after the divisional round, and that three days might seem even shorter than players would prefer.

In other words, St. Louis knows there will be no rest for the weary. They know this all too well.

So What Will Happen? Do They Have a Shot?

Sure! Things have changed faster in baseball this season than they ever have before. Remember how Fernando Tatis Jr. was a lock for National League MVP less than two weeks ago? He’s still a popular choice, but his production has definitely fallen off from its peak this season.

Should the Cardinals finish second in the NL Central, they would almost assuredly be locked into the sixth seed in the playoff bracket. As of Monday, that would pit them against the Atlanta Braves, home of departed Marcell Ozuna, NL Central-alumnus Adam Duvall and a world-talent by the name of Ronald Acuña Jr.

Not the most favorable matchup for St. Louis’ offensive struggles, but it’s a pitching staff that is less powerful than last season’s NLDS team.

If the Cardinals manage to slide down in the standings but still secure a playoff spot, the eighth seed would be the only other remote possibility for St. Louis. To no one’s surprise, that would entail a three-game cross-country trip to face the Los Angeles Dodgers, the top seed in the National League. The hill here is much harder to climb, even despite the recent postseason history between the Cardinals and LA.

Do the Cardinals have a chance to make the postseason? Wholeheartedly, the answer is yes. But is that a likely possibility? Not if they intend to hit like they’ve been prone to do this season. Five hits against a subpar pitching staff will look healthy when staring down the barrel of an Braves or Dodgers ace.

 

Featured Image Courtesy of the New York Post

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