Posted on 24 August 2012.
It was nearly the exact same point in the schedule two years ago when the Cardinals embarked on a 10-game road trip that figured to define their season. And it did.
After leaving St. Louis trailing the Cincinnati Reds by 3.5 games in the National League Central, the Cardinals went 2-8 against non-contenders Pittsburgh, Washington and Houston and returned home eight games back. They missed the playoffs.
They begin arguably an even more important 10-game road trip Friday night in Cincinnati before heading to Pittsburgh and Washington next week. The Cardinals trail the Reds by 7.5 games in the division race but hold a one-game lead on the Pirates for the second wild card spot. The Nationals currently lead the NL East.
Hoping to repeat as World Champions, the Cardinals know what happens the next ten days could go a long way in determining whether or not they’ll get that chance.
“This is a huge road trip,” said third baseman David Freese. “Kind of regardless of who you are playing but more so because your going up against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Washington, three teams that are right in the thick of things. It’s a good test and it’s going to be fun, I can tell you that much.
“To get to the playoffs you have to beat tough teams, and this is a good test. This is a statement, either way, how this road trip turns out for really all the teams involved.”
The Cardinals lost two of three to Pittsburgh over the weekend, including a heartbreaking 19-inning affair in the finale on Sunday that dropped them two games behind the Pirates for the second wild card spot.
But the teams have gone in opposite directions since. The Pirates were swept in a three-game series in San Diego while the Cardinals won three games against the Houston Astros. A two-game deficit became a one-game advantage, quickly turning the tide back in the Cardinals favor after what was a devastating defeat.
The Cardinals will get their chance at the Pirates beginning Monday in Pittsburgh. But first comes a three-game series at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati where the Cardinals hope to chip away at their division deficit.
“Our goal coming into the year was to win the division and we felt like we had a team that was good enough to do that and still feel that way,” said reliever Mitchell Boggs. “The Reds have obviously played really good and you don’t see them going anywhere. They are a team that’s legitimate and we’re going to do everything we can to catch them.
“We’ve got six games left with them, but the biggest thing for us is just to focus on us and play the way we’re capable of playing.”
The two teams opened the second half of the season in Cincinnati in mid-July and the Reds won all three games by a combined five runs. Included was a walk-off home run from former Cardinal Ryan Ludwick in the 10th inning of the middle game.
Cincinnati went 19-3 to start play after the All-Star break to create a gap between themselves and the two other contenders in the division. But the Cardinals felt like they could have won all three games at their place and hope to earn some payback this weekend.
“I can’t wait to play them,” said manager Mike Matheny. “You look at this trip coming up and how that series went and how close it was. It certainly could have been three games on the other side for us. We haven’t had a lot of conversations about it because we’re intentionally staying in the here and now, but that’s going to be a fun series.”
The Cardinals will miss Reds ace Johnny Cueto, who pitched Thursday night against the Philadelphia Phillies. But Kyle Lohse pitched Wednesday night for the Cardinals and won’t appear in the series either.
Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia and Adam Wainwright will start for the Cardinals while Cincinnati plans to counter with Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey. If the Cardinals have any plans of tracking down the Reds, they know it has to start this weekend.
“I think the closer you can get to the Reds, the better ball you are playing,” Freese said. “I don’t think those guys are going to slow down too much. They are kind of doing what Milwaukee did last year. That’s fine with us. There’s other ways to get into the playoffs but the division is still something we’re striving for. We’re trying to win as many ballgames as we can.”
The Pirates will host the Milwaukee Brewers over the weekend before the Cardinals arrive for a three-game series beginning Monday night. The Cardinals have Lohse, Jake Westbrook and Lynn lined up to pitch in Pittsburgh.
Then it’s off to the nation’s capital where the Cardinals will get their first look at Bryce Harper and the Nationals. Washington has a commanding lead in the N.L. East and provides the Cardinals with a stiff, out of division test to finish the trip. It also could be a preview of a potential playoff series should the Cardinals get in.
“It’s going to be important,” said outfielder Matt Holliday. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a do-or-die scenario but three good teams and the Pirates are right behind us in the wild card and the Reds are obviously having a great season. It will be a challenge but I think we’re up for it.
“There’s six weeks left. Right now we’re in the playoffs so we’ve got to keep playing and keep pushing.”
The Cardinals will still have 28 games remaining when they return home. But the next ten days could have a big say in whether or not they qualify for a return trip to the postseason. And they know it.
“It’s big,” Boggs said. “You look at the teams we’re playing and all three teams, two division leaders and another team that’s been right near the top all year long. It’s also three teams that play really good at home. I think it’s going to tell us a lot about what type of team we’re going to be down the stretch and hopefully we can go into their place and win some games and win a few series and get the ball rolling.
“I think we all understand that there’s a little over a month left to go in the season. It’s important. There’s no shying away or hiding from it. This is a big road trip for us and hopefully we can put ourselves in position to do something special.”
The Cardinals and Reds will meet at Busch Stadium for the final three games of the regular season. And the Cardinals just hope they still mean something.