The Cardinals stand at a very important crossroads right now. After finding themselves on the incredibly disheartening losing end of a 19-inning marathon of a game against their division rival Pirates on Sunday, they are now a solid 8 games back in the division and 1.5 games back in the battle for the second wildcard spot with 41 games left to play. The loss on Monday was not only devastating because of the length of the game and the number of pitchers used but mainly because it was to the Pirates, whom they are battling for that final spot in the wildcard. You simply can’t lose close games this late in the year to teams that you are battling with for a playoff spot. It not only hurts your playoff chances (especially if it comes down to head-to-head record to decide the final wildcard spot), but it is demoralizing to the whole team. The effect is only magnified in an extra-innings affair where the stakes always seem higher, especially in a 19-inning drainer of a game. The loss continues a trend that has been baffling fans all year; despite an astounding run differential of +106 (good for second in the majors behind the Nationals) which computes to 72 wins based on the Pythagorean expectation for wins, they only have 65 wins (for more info on expected wins, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagorean_expectation). Can this wide margin of difference between expected wins and actual wins be based purely on luck?
Not exactly. This type of discrepancy between expected wins and actual wins usually occurs when teams win a lot of blowout games and lose a lot of close games. As Wendy Thurm points out in this fascinating article on the Cards offense (http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/is-the-cardinals-offense-a-fraud/), the Cards are 24-11 (29% of their games so far) in games decided by five runs or more, with a run differential of +92 in those games. However, they are only 13-21 (28% of their games so far) in one-run games, with a -8 run differential. A .382 winning percentage in one-run games simply won’t cut it for a team with playoff aspirations. The ability to win close games demonstrates a certain amount of grit and determination that this team seems to be lacking a little bit as of late. As Steve Hirsch mentioned previously in his analysis of the game Sunday (http://www.cardsblog.com/blog/#2032), you can’t have two of your best veteran hitters go a combined 0-15 in this type of game, as Matt Holiday and David Freese did against the Pirates. Someone needs to step up on the hitting side, as the pitching staff was dominant and then some throughout.
The Cardinals stand at a crossroads. ESPN’s updated standings have their chance of making the playoffs at 50.1% right now. This season after an off-day/break (such as the one they had yesterday), the Cards have gone 7-7. They can really go in either one of two directions right now. They can stay stuck in the post-loss residue, limping to the end of the season and out of the playoff hunt just a year after they won the World Series. A loss tonight might just set them down that path. Alternatively, they can use Sunday’s loss as a lesson, regroup mentally, and come out firing against the Astros tonight. Anything short of a sweep against the worst team in baseball would be seen as a wasted opportunity to gain some ground in the wildcard race and generate some positive momentum going forward. While it would be nice to see the Cards win some close games, I think we should all hope for and be satisfied with three blowout wins in a row against the Astros. I think I’ve had enough of extra-inning marathon games for a while.