The St. Louis Cardinals are back on top of the National League Central.
After missing the postseason completely each of the last three seasons, the Cardinals clinched the NL Central division for the 11th time in franchise history and the first time since 2015 with a 9-0 victory against the Chicago Cubs.
Getting to this point proved more difficult than St. Louis hoped it would be. They held a 6.5-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers on Sept. 7, but saw that lead dwindle to one game heading into the final weekend. Back-to-back losses to the Cubs put St. Louis in jeopardy of blowing the lead completely, but the Brewers failed to capitalize by losing two straight against the Colorado Rockies.
There were no doubts in the clinching victory. The Cardinals scored eight runs in the first three innings thanks in part to home runs from Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter. That was more than enough support for Jack Flaherty. The Cardinals ace tossed seven scoreless innings.
The Cardinals already know where that their postseason journey will begin. A matchup with the NL East champion Atlanta Braves is set in stone beginning Thursday at SunTrust Park. The Cardinals will look to add a 12th World Series banner to their collection, but given the late season struggles it might be fair to wonder if there’s enough firepower here to be a postseason factor.
How the Cardinals won the NL Central
Paul Goldschmidt was the prized offseason pickup. But the Cardinals success really starts with the pitching. Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson in particular have been major reasons the Cardinals rotation ranks top six in MLB. In fact, Flaherty’s second half ERA of 0.91 is the best in MLB.
In the bullpen, former ace Carlos Martinez is getting comfortable as the closer. Andrew Miller, the Cardinals other big winter addition, has been less than stellar overall, but has show some promising signs. Then there's Giovanny Gallegos, who might be the best under-the-radar reliever in MLB.
The addition of Goldschmidt in a trade with the Arizona Diamomdbacks has obviously helped too. The perennial MVP contender elevated the Cardinals offense with his power and run production. But he hasn't been alone. Marcell Ozuna and Paul DeJong have both been productive all season long. While the second half has led to a resurgence from Dexter Fowler and the emergence of rookie Tommy Edman.
The second half really has been the story in St. Louis. The Cardinals were 44-44 at the All-Star break, but came out hot despite Yadier Molina missing extended time with an injury. Since the All-Star break, the Cardinals are 47-27. They've held sole possession of first place since Aug. 23.
What do the Cardinals have to do to win the World Series
The Cardinals will need their strong pitching to carry over.
This will be new territory for Flaherty and Hudson, so you don't know exactly what to expect there. Wainwright has the experience, but is nowhere near the lockdown ace he used to be. The same goes for Andrew Miller in the bullpen. As good as they've been collectively, the postseason will put each individual pitcher under a different spotlight.
If the pitching comes through, the Cardinals will should be able to compete with the NL’s best. If it doesn't, Goldschmidt and company will have to be at their absolute best.
For several seasons, Matt Carpenter was the most reliable hitter in the Cardinals. Last season, he even entered the MVP conversation thanks to a red-hot summer that included 28 home runs in a 78-game stretch from June through August.
This season, it’s been quite the opposite for Carpenter. In 129 games, he’s only managed 15 homers while posting a sluggish .226 batting average. Injuries have played a role, but St. Louis will need him to start rolling in October.
As noted, there will also be concerns about how the pitching staff will fare when facing a murderer’s row lineup like many of this season’s top contenders possess.
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