The Cardinals are doing what they always do: winning. And, they're doing it at the right time. The defending National League champions hold a 3½-game lead over the second-place Pirates thanks to a 9-3 stretch that saw the Cards win six games over the Bucs and third-place Brewers, both of whom are in the thick of the NL Wild Card race.
St. Louis hasn't had a ton of things go right for them this year. Yadier Molina has missed a huge chunk of the season. Matt Holliday is declining. Their once-vaunted starting pitching depth has been merely OK; they were actually forced to deal for John Lackey and Justin Masterson at the deadline, and neither acquisition has been very good since joining the Cardinals. Hell, St. Louis has outscored its opponents by only three runs this season ... hardly a dominant performance.
And yet, here we are. The Cards are 80-66 and, barring an unforeseen collapse, will make their fifth postseason appearances in six years. How are they doing what they always do? Viva El Birdos' Aaron Finkel gives us that answer, and much more, in a Q&A exchange (you can see my answers to his questions over there soon).
BK: I kind of thought this might be the year the Cardinals would get shut out of the playoffs when the Brewers started out hot and St. Louis was scuffling. That's probably not going to happen. What has been the key to the turnaround from the Cards' perspective?
AF: There are a few different ways to look at it. From a record standpoint, I don't think there's been a turnaround for the Cardinals. They were one game over .500 at the end of April, and have been between one and three games over .500 in each month thereafter. They've been on a hot streak in these last dozen games or so (which might be ending. They've lost two in a row to the Reds as of my writing this), but other than that they've built their current record by being slightly better than .500 every month. The much bigger swing has been for the Brewers. They've been a flat-out bad baseball team since June ended, and that has been the primary cause of the divisional turnaround. That's not to say that the Cardinals haven't changed. Their hitting has been slowly improving throughout the season, but their pitching is certainly worse now than it was in May. The Cardinals are and have been a pretty good, but not great team all season. The standings and calendar are very friendly, but it wouldn't shock me if the Birds slip and the Pirates make things interesting down the stretch. The series sweep of the Bucs that played a big role in the Cards' hot streak and charge in the standings could have easily been a 2-1 series win for the Pirates. They're a very dangerous team with Liriano effective again and Cole healthy.
BK: Matt Holliday's numbers are down a bit. Watching him on a nightly basis, is his swing slowing down and/or are any of his other hitting skills deteriorating otherwise?
AF: I can't really diagnose the reason why, but bat speed is a good guess. His LD% is down a bit, but for the most part he just looks like a slightly less good Matt Holliday. His ISO has dropped two years in a row, and his average flyball distance sits a few feet short of where he was back in 2012, but he's still an aggressive, smart hitter quite capable of stinging the ball. He's probably had a little bit of bad BABIP luck. Even with fewer line drives, I think he should be better than .299 there, but it's safe to say he has declined a bit. I think it's also safe to say he'll remain productive next year even if his best years are behind him.
BK: This is not a great offensive club, at least this season, but will it even have to be to make a deep postseason run?
AF: No. While the playoffs are highly unpredictable, the clearest path for the Cardinals to make another deep run probably involves Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, and either John Lackey or Michael Wacha pitching brilliantly in front of a very good defense. Wainwright has pitched through a couple of injuries this year. He had elbow tendinitis in June and has dealt with "dead arm" over the last month or two, and he hasn't been a great pitcher since the former became public. There are some signs he's getting better, though I'm not convinced he's out of the woods. John Lackey's velocity is down from where he was in Boston. If he's hurt, all bets are off, but I'm not in panic mode yet. Michael Wacha has made two starts since coming off the DL. With the minor leagues winding down, these have essentially been rehab starts meant to build up stamina. He hasn't thrown his brilliant changeup much at all, so we're all waiting, watching, and hoping. I wouldn't be surprised if two of those three pitching question marks round into form in the coming weeks, but if they don't, the Cardinals will need some good fortune or unexpectedly potent hitting to make the world series again.
BK: There was a ton of talk leading up to this season -- or, at least, before the Cards signed Jhonny Peralta -- of a possible Troy Tulowitzki-to-St. Louis trade. As a Cards follower, do you even still have interest in the guy after yet another season-ending injury? And if so, what would you be willing to part with?
AF: I certainly have interest, and I think the Cardinals will as well. The teams will probably quietly talk this offseason, though anything happening would be a long-shot, of course. Here's my idea: Tulowitzki would play short, Peralta would move to third, and Matt Carpenter to second, while Kolten Wong plus Shelby Miller and a complimentary piece would go to Colorado. How does that sound? This sort of thing is impossible to guess. Every trading season I'm shocked by how much certain players fetch, and how little others do, so who knows? Miller is very young and talented, but his first two seasons have been a bit enigmatic. He's showing some signs of getting back on track recently by throwing his curve a lot more and locating the fastball better. Kolten Wong looks like he'll be a good ballplayer for a long time, and the Cardinals have a lot of pitching in the minors to sweeten the pot, though I wouldn't sweeten it too much unless there was significant money coming back along with Tulo's fragile body. I think some at PurpleRow might scoff at Miller and Wong, but Tulo's health and contract are huge factors, and he's about to turn 30. I think the Cardinals do add a big name in the next few years, but I don't think "Tulowitzki" is very likely to be that name.
BK: Predictions for this series ... go!
AF: Hm. Cards take the first two, but Lyles befuddles the Cardinals and Michael Wacha takes the loss in game three.
Pitching matchups and TV schedule
Game 1: Friday, Sept. 12 at 6:15 p.m. MT (ROOT Sports, MLB.tv)
Jorge De La Rosa vs. Adam Wainwright
Game 2: Saturday, Sept. 13 at 5:15 p.m. MT (ROOT Sports, MLB.tv)
Franklin Morales vs. Shelby Miller
Game 3: Sunday, Sept. 13 at 12:15 p.m. MT (ROOT Sports, MLB.tv)
Jordan Lyles vs. Michael Wacha
Editor's Note: SB Nation's partner FanDuel is hosting a one-day $18,000 Fantasy Baseball league for tonight's MLB games. It's $2 to join and first prize is $2,000. Here's the link; jump in now!