(BaseballStL) -- On Aug. 22, the St. Louis Cardinals began the toughest and most crucial 17-game span of the season.
The Redbirds faced four against the Atlanta Braves, who own the National League’s best record, six with the then-division leading Pittsburgh Pirates and seven with the pesky Cincinnati Reds. While they couldn’t win the division title in those 17 games, they could certainly lose it.
Those 17 games came at a time when the Cardinals were mired in a slump, going 11-16 in their previous 27.
They had lost four out of five in Pittsburgh and had been swept in Atlanta. Yadier Molina spent 15 days on the DL, several Cardinals weren’t hitting and the bullpen was overworked. Jake Westbrook never regained his form after elbow problems and a parade of AAA starters including Tyler Lyons, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha were cobbled together to replace him, as well as injured starters Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia.
The meltdown of Mitchell Boggs and Marc Rzepcyznski and the loss of Jason Motte, meant more young minor leaguers were promoted, including 41st round pick Kevin Siegrist and 24-year-old Seth Maness.
To almost any other team, the odds were so long at that point as to be laughable.
But to the Cardinals, well, no problemo.
The Redbirds started the series by taking three of four from the Braves in dominating fashion and crushed the Reds with Allen Craig’s grand slam homer in the 8th inning in the first game of that series. Despite losing six of the next nine. the Birds remained within striking distance coming into a crucial three-game set with the Pirates.
In a script Hollywood would reject as too unbelievable, the Redbirds swept the Pirates – no, crushed the Pirates – all three games to win 10 of the 17 and rally from 1.5 games out to 1.5 games ahead with just 19 games left. Better yet, the Cardinals play only three games against a team with a winning record, that being three against the Washington Nationals who have finally crept four games above .500. And even better yet, 12 of the 19 are at Busch Stadium where they are 44-25 this year.
More good news is that David Freese is 5-for-12 in his last four games with two taters, beginning to demonstrate the power the Cards counted on before the season started. And Pete Kozma, mired in a loooong slide, showed some life in the crucial Pittsburgh series, going 4-for-8 and continuing to display the kind of defense the Cards need going down the stretch. Matt Adams’ two homers filling in for Allen Craig saved disaster in Cincinnati and the Cards bullpen has suddenly become lights out, as the pitching staff held Cincinnati to a single run over the last 11 innings in that important win.
What happens over the final 19 games will, of course, decide whether the Cards hold on and avoid the nail-biting one-game play-in.
Every team climbs of a wall of problems to finish first. The Cardinals’ wall may have been higher than most, given all that has happened.
But no matter now; they find themselves in a position where they control their own destiny.