ST. LOUIS — “Well here we go again, you've found yourself a friend, that knows you well.”
Once more it’s September, and once more the Cardinals find themselves playing their best ball of the year. The club leads the majors in record over the final month the last three years, and a 3-0 start paints a picture of a team ready to surge once more. For whatever reason, the Redbirds own baseball’s fourth quarter.
“But no matter what you do, it always feels as though you tripped and fell.”
Mike Matheny’s club came into 2014 with astronomical expectations. Falling short in October last year, the team was expected to own the NL Central for most of the season en route to another pennant.
Instead, St. Louis trailed Milwaukee (or at least couldn’t outpace them) every day since April 5. If they weren’t written off, they certainly engendered concern in Cardinal Nation, as climbing the standings began to feel like a Sisyphean task.
Still, the message from Busch Stadium was clear.
“We have to win every game, that’s how we look at it,” Matheny said Wednesday, repeating a modus operandi he has preached since Opening Day. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Milwaukee or whoever else you want to put in that category.”
Wednesday closed with the Cardinals in first place alone, only the third time all season the NL Central has experienced that reality.
Thursday will find them in Milwaukee, beginning a four game set that encompasses the lion’s share of the remaining seven games with the Brewers. The series could well determine the landscape of the division through the season’s final month. Matheny does not see the forest, however. He sees the tree.
“Settle for a girl neither up or down. Sell it to the crowd that's gathered round.”
The 43-year-old manager has a simple, if oft repeated, mantra he works by: Every game is the most important one all year. Thursday’s opener will feature Michael Wacha, a core piece of the rotation who has spent the last 78 days on the DL. He will return to face the division’s fiercest foe after a two-inning rehab outing in Double-A Springfield.
With so much hype surrounding the September series, it’s easy to begin scripting an October-tinted narrative. Easy for everyone that is, except Matheny.
“You start trying to put more onto that series, more onto that game, more onto Michael- I know it makes great journalism, but it doesn’t make for good baseball,” he said. “The only way we’re going to have a chance at this is if we stay consistent. Consistent is boring, but I believe it preps us to win.”
It’s hard to argue that point. Through five months of baseball, the Cardinal manager has not wavered. Through stagnant offense, he did not bend. Through harrowing ninth innings, he did not bow. Through an August that saw his ace struggle to make quality starts, he did not break. Matheny has remained stready, and his team has not faded.
With a three game lead they head into the heart of enemy territory. They feature a pitcher whose last MLB action was 68 games ago. They do so completing a three game sweep of the next closest challenger in the Pittsburgh Pirates. The intensity has increased, and Matheny’s club has risen with the tide.
“The last three games felt like a playoff,” Yadier Molina said Wednesday after scoring the winning run. “The next four, the next eight are going to feel like the playoffs. The whole month is like the playoffs for us.”
The prophesized Cardinals have emerged after so much patience was preached. Long after the Brewers felt invincible, shortly after they lost four in a row heading into August’s final days and right as October seemed to be fading over the horizon, they have arrived.
Now, there’s only one message that seems to resonate.
“Steady as she goes.”