Are stumbling Cardinals in danger of blowing the NL Central?

Joe Maddon was sitting in the visitor’s dugout at Busch Stadium last week, chatting with media members before his Cubs opened a three-game series against the Cardinals. Chicago’s manager was talking about his team’s goals, how they still wanted to catch the Pirates in the NL Central race and then hopefully put the division-leading Cardinals in their sights. Maddon is not one to shrink away from a challenge, and the idea of catching St. Louis — which had an 8.5-game lead over the Cubs and a 5.5-game edge on the Pirates — was certainly a challenge. MORE: The 10 greatest Cardinals players of all time“Give the Cardinals credit,” Maddon said. “They have not blinked at all.” That was a week ago. Since then, the Cardinals have blinked. They have squinted. Their eyes have flickered, fluttered and flashed, and now when they look at the Central standings, they see the Pirates a mere 2.5 games back. The Cubs got within 5.5 games and now sit 6.5 back.  Related News 10 greatest St. Louis Cardinals players of all time The blink actually started before Maddon and his Cubs arrived. The Cardinals capped a stretch of nine wins in 10 games with a walk-off win against the Nationals — Brandon Moss hit a three-run homer with two outs in the ninth — on Sept. 1. That win moved them 40 games over the .500 mark at 86-46; only eight teams since 2000 have finished a season at least 40 games over .500, and the Cardinals were sitting there after their first game of September.  They lost the finale of that series, 4-3, in a game started by rookie Tyler Lyons because the Cardinals wanted to push Michael Wacha back a few days to give him some rest. Then they lost two of three at home to the Pirates, with the two losses by a combined score of 16-4. Then, Maddon’s Cubs took the first two of the series, by a combined score of 17-5. After the Cardinals salvaged the finale of that series, they went to Cincinnati, where they promptly lost three in a row to a Reds team that was 24 games under .500. Yep, that’s a blink. A disastrous blink. So what happened to a team that sidestepped every pitfall — and with injuries to stars Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday and Matt Adams, there were plenty of potential pitfalls that needed sidestepping — for the first five months of the season? Let’s take a look at the September numbers.  We’ll start with the pitching, at the most basic level. Their team ERA so far this month is 5.31, which ranks 24th in the majors. In the first five months, it was an -best 2.65. Their September FIP is 4.53, which is 17th in the bigs; it was an -best 3.36 heading into this month. Their walks pe

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r nine jumped from 2.81 to 3.51. Their homers allowed per nine went from 0.66 to 1.46. Their WHIP went from 1.22 to 1.55. You get the picture. A pitching staff that was awesome for five months has been mostly awful for the past couple weeks. A disturbance in the rotation might have been part of the factor; in that stretch, Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Lance Lynn each had their starts pushed back for various reasons, and all three struggled after the extra rest. The offense, which was middle of the pack for the first five months — 4.1 runs per game, team average of .255, team OPS of .716 — has been pretty awful lately. During that 2-8 stretch, the Cardinals averaged just 2.3 runs a game, had a team batting average of .227 and a team OPS of .607. Yikes, right? Of course, this is a small sample size, only 10 games of a 162-game season. And the Cardinals had been so very good during the first five months of the season that they built up a decent little cushion, despite playing in the best division in baseball (the Pirates and Cubs will claim the NL’s two wild-card spots. That cushion’s gone, though, and the possibly having to play in the dreaded one-game wild-card is suddenly a way-too-close reality for the team that’s owned the best record in baseball for most of the season. So here’s the question: Was that 2-8 stretch an aberration that will be quickly forgotten with a return to life as the Cardinals knew it for five months, or was this stretch the beginning of what would be an epic September collapse? There are plenty of reasons for Cardinals fans to lean toward the aberration side. Pitching on normal rest — starters are extreme creatures of routine — should help the rotation stalwarts return to normalcy. And the offense should get a bit of a boost. Matt Adams is off the DL and hit a home run Sunday. Randal Grichuk is off the DL and should be able to return to the starting lineup soon. Matt Holliday might return this week in Milwaukee. So we’ll see. The Cardinals have three more games against the Cubs and three more against the Pirates — all six on the road — remaining this season. If nothing else, that should make for compelling baseball.