As a Cardinal fan, I’ve followed the NL Central closely all season. Most Cards fans have been frustrated by this club’s lack of consistency all year. Last year’s team thrived by hitting an all-time best .330 with runners in scoring position. Though we all knew that rate was unsustainable, I don’t think anybody expected the offense to tail off to this level. The ’14 Birds never quite found a replacement for Carlos Beltran’s powerful bat. In addition, Allen Craig was either injured or ineffective (or both) and 3B / leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter came back to earth a bit after a monster campaign last year. All of which contributed to a lackluster attack that finished last in the National League in home runs.
In and of itself, that’s not a huge deal. The Cardinal clubs I grew up watching were similarly punchless, save for Jack Clark’s prodigious power. But unlike the Cardinal clubs of the 1980s, these Redbirds don’t burn up the basepaths. 57 regular season stolen bases put the Cards at 28th in the majors; Dodgers 2B Dee Gordon had 7 more steals by himself. Which means the Cardinals have to go back to their RISP ways of 2013. In the second half, only Matt Holliday (14 HR, 45 RBI) and John Jay (.323 average) have sustained lengthy hot streaks. The Cards have to hope that the other regulars follow suit.
The Cards pitching has been a bit up and down all year, too. Michael Wacha looked like an ace early on, but an odd injury cost him over three months on the disabled list. Who knows what he’ll be able to give St. Louis in the postseason? Kevin Siegrist, a key part of last year’s pen, carries an ERA north of 13.00 in the 2nd half. And former closer Jason Motte has struggled to find consistency all season. Thankfully, a few of the arms have helped stabilize things. Adam Wainwright matches up with any starter in the league, Clayton Kershaw included. And when will the rest of the league recognize Lance Lynn as a legit #2? In 89IP in the 2nd half, Lynn has posted a 2.22 ERA. In that same time span, Shelby Miller has notched a 2.92 ERA. If John Lackey works through his current hiccups, the Cards have four solid arms in their rotation. The key will be how well the bats hit Kershaw in the NLDS.
Over in Pittsburgh, the Pirates are headed to the October tournament for the second straight year, carried by a deep lineup and a solid pitching staff. No one means more to the Pirates than reigning NL MVP Adam McCutchen. Thanks to a .314 / 25 / 83 campaign, McCutchen might be well on his way to an MVP repeat. (If not for an August injury that cost him 2 weeks, it might not even be close.) Starling Marte, Russell Martin, and Neil Walker also contributed to an attack that ranks fourth in the league in runs scored. But the X Factor for Pittsburgh this season has been the play of All Star utility man Josh Harrison. After hitting .250 in 88 ABs last season, Harrison forced himself into manager Clint Hurdle’s everyday lineup, hitting .315 over 520 ABs, finishing 2nd in the league in batting, and fortifying the club by playing five different positions.
In Jared Hughes, Tony Watson, and closer Mark Melancon, the Pirates have over 200 IPs of sub-2.00 ERA at the back end of their bullpen. With such weapons available late, the Bucs can survive a pedestrian rotation that lacks a true #1 or even a 200 IP workhorse. Gerritt Cole, Edinson Volquez, and Francisco Liriano may not strike fear in the hearts of opposing lineups, but if they can keep it close through six innings, they’ve done their job.
I’ll be rooting for Pittsburgh in the wild card game against San Fran. For a team that’s scrapped and clawed for every win the past two seasons, I’d like to see them make an October run.