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Holliday scores

St. Louis Cardinals' Matt Holliday rounds third and heads home to score on a double by Randal Grichuk during the first inning against the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday, April 11, 2016, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

ST. LOUIS • A baseball writer from another city (name withheld to protect the intelligent) suggested that the disparity in the National League Central is so dramatic that the top three teams in the division should expect to win 15 games each against the two stragglers.

That’s a 30-win head start on the standings.

That seems doable.

For the Cardinals, it could be essential.

With a 10-3 victory against the streaking Philadelphia Phillies on Monday night, the Cardinals won for the second time in 10 games this season against winning teams. Entering this past weekend series against the Washington Nationals, I was asked a few times if that visit was a litmus test for the host Cardinals. I didn’t think so. The Nationals are a good team, a contending team, an elite team in the National League.

The more revealing series for the Cardinals is this one: The Phillies one. Philadelphia is a team that was not expected to win, that is advertising a rebuilding year, and yet is winning. The Phillies had won six consecutive games entering this series, and they had the record that the Cardinals would prefer to have. But they are not expected to be contenders. The Cardinals are.

So, can the Cardinals play well enough to defeat a lesser team that is playing well? It could be key to the Cardinals’ chances this season.

Against the class of the National League – the Cubs, the Pirates, and Nats – the Cardinals are 1-8 and they have been outscored, 42-19. In 13 games against teams either openly advertising their rebuilding or clearly doing so without the advertising, the Cardinals are 9-4 after their 1-0 loss Tuesday. The Cardinals have outscored lesser opponents in those 13 games, 108 to 40.

Before Tuesday's game, they led the majors in homers (40) and runs scored (153), but they’ve built those stats mostly against inferior teams (35 homers, 134 runs). They have fattened their record on rebuilding teams, of which there are plenty in the NL to feed them.

Is that enough to contend?

Can the Cardinals prop their season on lesser teams?

Put more specifically: Can the Cardinals continue feasting on the have-nots in the NL, hold serve against their midrange peers, and continue to struggle against the haves and still reach October? If ever there was a time when it would be possible to pound on meek teams enough to reach the playoffs, this appears to be the year as the middle class gets squeezed.

I grouped the teams on the Cardinals’ schedule into these groups: elite, mediocre, and mostly awful. While the Phillies have played beyond their reputation, I lumped them with their preseason expectations. The elite teams the Cardinals will face are the Cubs, Pirates, Nationals, Mets, and Texas Rangers. The Cardinals' mediocre peers are that next tier of teams that you’d expect – the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Giants … and so on. The awful teams are the tankers. The Cardinals have already faced the Reds, the Brewers, the Padres, and the lagging Braves.

Before Tuesday's game, the Cardinals had the following games remaining against these groups:

45 vs. elite

33 vs. mediocre

58 vs. lesser

That’s a buffet of wins available.

If their first-month rates continue that means they’ll go …

5-40 vs. elite

17-16 vs. mediocre

45-13 vs. lesser

At 13-13 already, that brings them to a total record of 80-82.

That’s not going to get them into the postseason.

To put perspective on what the Cardinals’ struggles against their betters means this season, if it continues the Cardinals would finish 25-66 against the elite and mediocre teams. They could go 58-0 against their lesser and finish with 93 wins. A year ago, that doesn’t get them in the playoffs. This season … it probably would. Teams like the Nationals and Cubs and Pirates are also going to gorge on the rebuilding teams, so it’s possible a 100-win team emerges from the NL because of the lopsided league. But it also underscores that the team that can just hold serve against the equal or better teams can reach October.

Consider, in the above example, if the Cardinals just play …

  • .200 against elites, they’d go 84-78.
  • .333 against elites, they’d go 90-72.
  • .400 against elites, they’d go 93-69.
  • .500 against elites, they’d go 103-59.

Due to the imbalance in the National League, it’s possible to do poorly against the other teams headed for the postseason and still reach the postseason. Then it’s a crapshoot. Before a team can win in the postseason it has to get into the postseason. That kind of thing.

Manager Mike Matheny called the win Monday against the Phillies a “bounce-back.”

“We needed one there,” he said.

They need every one they can get.

The wins against the stragglers count the same, and in the National League this season there are a handful of stragglers willing to help teams scale the standings. It might take 15 wins against the Reds and Brewers to compensate, and the problem for the Cardinals is that the Pirates and Cubs get those games, too. And while the Cardinals only have four games remaining against the Nats and six against the Mets, there are 32 combined remaining against the Cubs and Pirates.

That’s nearly a quarter of their remaining schedule.

Beating the teams they must will only get the Cardinals so far.

At some point, they’re going to have to beat their betters.

They’re going to have to be better.

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