The St. Louis Cardinals are back in the postseason. They finished just a few games behind the first-place Cubs, securing the No. 5 seed and a trip to San Diego for the inaugural Wild Card Series, where yesterday, they took Game one over the Padres by a final of 7-4. This year, the postseason is expanded to 16 teams, eight per league with the first round being a best of three series, and the higher seed hosting each of the first two games and the third if necessary. The Cards hope to go farther after falling short in the NLCS a year ago to the eventual World Champion Washington Nationals. But how far can they go is the question.
As mentioned above, the Cardinals made it all the way to the NLCS last year after capturing their first division title and playoff berth since 2015. Inconsistency with the offense is what led to their downfall against the Nats. Slugger Marcell Ozuna also departed via free agency. Instead of replacing him, the Cardinals put a lot of stock in their group of young outfielders, (Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Harrison Bader, and top prospect Dylan Carlson) hoping that at least one of them would break out and solve the team’s offensive woes. But each one of them with the exception of Carlson, who has been on a tear since his return from the team’s alternate site in Springfield, has severely underperformed. The offense has shown its capability to produce runs, but has not been consistent, and could pose a major problem for the Cards in the postseason. Offseason acquisition Brad Miller has been most productive, leading the team in Home Runs with seven and making himself right at home as the team’s Designated Hitter, along with Paul Goldschmidt, who looks much more like he did during his Arizona Diamondbacks days.
Another factor is the pandemic. After a 17-day layoff due to the team’s COVID-19 outbreak, the schedule was stacked with doubleheaders, leaving only two off days for the rest of the season. With the shortened schedule due to COVID, the Cardinals played 53 games to play in 44 days, which amounted to 11 doubleheaders. The team has had to rely heavily on its pitching staff, especially the bullpen, which has been a strength, despite the losses of John Brebbia, John Gant, and Jordan Hicks. But due to injuries and the inconsistencies of starters like Jack Flaherty, Johan Oviedo, and Carlos Martinez, the bullpen has been used extensively, with some of the games even being pitched almost entirely by the pen. Now, with Martinez and Dakota Hudson out, the rotation is without two of its major pieces. And with COVID still spreading at a rapid rate across the world, they aren’t safe from another positive test, let alone another outbreak.
As previously mentioned, the team’s strength has been its pitching, with veteran Adam Wainwright pacing the rotation with a 5-3 record and a 3.15 ERA. For a while, he seemed to be the only starter who was able to go deep into games, with each of his starts lasting at least six innings. Wainwright has been the most consistent of them all and is almost certainly going to be their Game one starter, but lately, starters such as Daniel Ponce De Leon and Kwang-Hyun Kim have found their groove, and have been able to go deeper into games, taking some pressure off of the bullpen. If the starters can continue to improve and the bullpen remains solid, the Cardinals could have another deep run into October this year.
The Cardinals will need to have a lot go right for them if they are to go deep into the postseason. The offense will need to become more consistent. Players such as O’Neill, Bader, Thomas, and Matt Carpenter, will need to step up. Carlson will need to stay hot. Staff ace Jack Flaherty will have to find a way to go deeper into games so that the bullpen can be saved. They will need strong performances from Wainwright, Kim, Ponce De Leon, and Austin Gomber (who took over Hudson’s spot in the rotation) as well. They also need to make sure that COVID doesn’t come back to bite them again. The Cardinals will almost certainly be heavy underdogs this postseason and will not be expected to go deep. But this is baseball and crazier things have happened. It’s possible that we could see another improbable run to a championship. As we saw in 2006 and 2011, anything is possible.