Tony's take: Cardinals have to worry about one thing

The St. Louis Cardinals keep winning, but the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, teams which are in front of the Cardinals in the National League Central Division, keep winning too. The Cardinals are currently six games behind first-place Cincy and 2.5 behind Pittsburgh.
Down 2.5 games behind the Reds at the All-Star break, the Cardinals didn’t start the break well losing 5 of their first 6 games, but ended up sweeping the Chicago Cubs and taking 3 of 4 from the Los Angeles Dodgers to close the month at 9-8. St. Louis swept Milwaukee to help start its August at 5-2 and help get the Redbirds back to six games back, as they were eight back a few days ago.

Cincinnati got off to an excellent start after the break closing July with a 14-3 record, including 10 wins in a row. The scary thing about the Reds’ 10-game streak is they didn’t have former MVP first baseman Joey Votto, who is batting .342 with 14 home runs and 49 RBIs this season. Pitching-wise, the Reds are led by Johnny Cueto with a 2.58 ERA and a 14-6 record, and Mat Latos at 3.94 and 10-3. Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo have been solid as well.

Since July 12, the first game after the all-star break, the Pirates are 14-10 and don’t look like they’re fading away as they did last season. Last year, the Pirates were one game behind Milwaukee for first place in the Central before ballooning to 10 games out at this time last year and making the division just a two-team (Cardinals and Brewers) race the rest of the season. The loss of Prince Fielder and other key elements have made the Brewers, which won the Central last year, a non-factor. At 3.5 out right now, the Pirates are very much in striking distance thanks to my vote for MVP so far this season Andrew McCutchen.

McCutchen is batting over 100 points better than last year’s season average of .259. In 105 games this year, he is batting .372 with 23 home runs and 69 RBIs. He has already matched last year’s home total of 23. But, other than McCutchen who is the only Pirate hitting over .300, the Bucs offense has been pretty inept batting .247 as a team on the year. Surprisingly it’s been pitching that has kept Pittsburgh in the race.

North Little Rock native A.J. Burnett is having a career year after three sub-par seasons with the New York Yankees. Burnett has a 3.19 ERA and is 4-0 – 14-3 overall – in his last four starts including a complete-game, one-hit shutout over the Cubs. Pirates starter James McDonald started the year 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA, but has since struggled his last five starts to put him at 10-5 and 3.42. The Pirates also traded for Mr. Consistent left-handed pitcher Wandy Rodriguez. This pick up by Pittsburgh actually started to make me worry about the Cardinals’ chances this season. Rodriguez is only 7-10 this year with a 3.82 ERA, but played for the lowly Houston Astros to start the season. Rodriguez has also pitched well against the Cardinals sporting a 3.79 ERA against St. Louis.

Despite Pittsburgh and Cincinnati having good years thus far, I still don’t understand how the Cardinals are six game out of first place and just 10 games over .500. The Cardinals lead the National League and are tied for the Major League lead with a .278 team average. St. Louis leads the majors with a .345 on-base percentage and has five players with at least 15 home runs already. Led by Carlos Beltran’s 26 home runs, the Cardinals are also getting power from Matt Holliday (21 HRs), Allen Craig (17), Yadier Molina (career-high 16) and David Freese (15).

The Cardinals are ranked seventh in the National League in ERA with a very good 3.72 team ERA. The fact that there are six other teams, including Cincinnati (3.38 ERA) and Pittsburgh (3.57 ERA), with a higher ERA than the Cardinals is crazy. We’re probably looking at another year of the pitcher, but probably not to the extent of 1968, the year of the pitcher, when Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with a .301 batting average, the lowest of any batting champion, and all 20 major league teams at the time had an ERA lower than 4.00. In fact, the Washington Senators had the highest ERA at 3.64. Major League Baseball lowered the mound from 15 to 10 inches that year and would implement the vile designated hitter a few years later.

So, what does all this mean for the Cardinals? A very tough division race down the stretch. Pitching for all three teams is very good, and as long as the pitching is there, the team has a chance. And what’s the old adage, “pitching and defense wins championships”. It’s pretty simple to see why the Cardinals are behind Cincy and Pittsburgh. Not only do the Reds and Pirates have a better ERA than the Cardinals, both teams have made less errors than the Cardinals with Cincy ranked second in the NL with fewest errors (59) and Pittsburgh ranked fourth (61). The Cardinals are at No. 9 with 70 errors.

Really, though, the Cardinals just have to stay within 10 games of first or at least the Wild Card by Aug. 25. That’s the day the Cardinals were 10 games behind Atlanta for the Wild Card and came back to make the playoffs and win their 11th World Series title. It can happen again.