<
>

The Cardinals Way: Just find a way to win

Maybe this is for the best, the St. Louis Cardinals beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 3-0 on Monday with three runs in the ninth inning. It certainly would have been fun to see the Pirates sweep the Cardinals in this series, tie up the National League Central and set up a potential Monday tiebreaker game to determine the division title.

But that scenario, as Joe Sheehan wrote in a newsletter on Monday, would be the nightmare that exposes the flaws of this playoff system. "MLB very much needs the Cardinals to beat up the Pirates this week, because otherwise, this system is going to benefit a third-place team at the expense of a second-place one finishing five or more games ahead of it," Joe wrote. "The Pirates or Cardinals could end up being punished for being a lot better than the Cubs."

Indeed, if the Pirates and Cardinals finish in a tie for the division, they would throw their best starting pitchers on Monday. You have to avoid the do-or-die wild-card at all costs. For the Pirates, that would mean using Gerrit Cole, who starts Wednesday and thus would be ready to pitch Monday on four days of rest. The Cardinals would presumably save John Lackey, their hottest pitcher.

Meanwhile, the Cubs, comfortably in hold of the second wild card but not as good as either Pittsburgh or St. Louis over the course of the season, would sit back with a rested Jake Arrieta and take on the loser of the Pirates-Cardinals tiebreaker, with the advantage of not having to face the team's ace. That's a bad system.

This is essentially what happened last year, when Pirates manager Clint Hurdle decided to start Cole on the final day of the regular season in an ill-fated shot of winning the division. That left Edinson Volquez instead of Cole in the wild-card game against Madison Bumgarner, and we all know how that turned out.

Anyway, the nightmare is unlikely to happen now. After the Pirates missed opportunity after opportunity after opportunity -- they stranded 16 runners on base -- Gregory Polanco bobbled a base hit to allow Matt Carpenter to score all the way from first base and then Mark Reynolds deposited a Mark Melancon fastball in the right-center bleachers for the 3-0 lead. The Pirates got the first batter on base in the bottom of the frame, but Cards closer Trevor Rosenthal worked out of it with a strikeout and two lineouts.

So it wasn't the Pirates' day. The Cardinals now lead by four games with five to play. And even if the Pirates win the final two games of this series, they'll need help from the hapless Braves, who play the Cardinals this weekend. We're likely now to see Arrieta against Cole in what should be a terrific wild-card duel.

It wasn't all good news for the Cardinals, however. Stephen Piscotty was carted off the field and to the hospital after he dove for a ball and slammed into Peter Bourjos' knee. Piscotty lay motionless for several minutes before being strapped to the board. He suffered a head contusion but reports are otherwise positive:

Piscotty, of course, has been a huge key for the Cardinals, filling in at both left field and first base, when Matt Holliday and Matt Adams were injured, and hitting .310/.365/.502 in 62 games. The Cardinals' offense isn't great, but with the surprising production of rookie outfielders Piscotty, Randal Grichuk and Thomas Pham, it has been just good enough. The Cardinals have dealt with injury adversity all season, with Adam Wainwright making just four starts and Holliday and Adams combining for just 445 plate appearances.

Then, they get Holliday and Adams back in September but Yadier Molina goes down with a thumb injury and Carlos Martinez has been shut down for the season with a shoulder strain. While the Nationals seemed to use their injury problems as an excuse, the Cardinals simply rolled along and relied on their organizational depth. In St. Louis, you don't whine, you just win.

They're sitting at 99 wins and their magic number is down to two. They're going to win their third straight division title and make the playoffs for the fifth straight season. They'll finish with the best record in the majors ... and likely see more people betting on the Mets and the Dodgers and even the Cubs to come out of the National League.

Do you want to bet against them? I sure don't.