As the Cardinals march, almost inexorably, it seems, to their 11th division title since 2000 — they also tied for another — it is not hard to see why this is happening.
They have not lost back-to-back games since July 24-26, a period of six weeks.
“I had no idea,” said manager Oliver Marmol.
“Once midnight hits, we’re on to the next day,” said infielder Brendan Donovan.
“I don’t know what to attribute it to,” said Marmol. “But whether we win or lose, the guys don’t put any stock in it the next day. It’s: ‘What do we need to do today?’"
They have won 27 of their past 35 games and lead by 8½ games over Milwaukee in the National League Central Division after former Cardinal Randal Grichuk tied and beat the Brewers with late-inning home runs in Colorado late Tuesday. A primary reason is pitching, such as what starter Jose Quintana gave the Cardinals on Tuesday night in a 4-1 win over the Nationals at Busch Stadium.
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Quintana lasted just five innings but he walked no one and permitted just one run before the bullpen took over. Marmol took him out with the top of the order coming up in the sixth, including dangerous designated hitter Nelson Cruz.
Jordan Hicks (two innings on his 26th birthday), Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley worked over the Nationals in the final four innings.
In those 35 games, the starters allowed more than three earned runs only seven times.
The Cardinals are 6-1 in Quintana’s seven starts, although he has gone six innings just twice. And they are 6-0 in the six starts for Jordan Montgomery, who is pitching on Wednesday night.
Meantime, there is more pitching to be had. Dakota Hudson, shuttled off to Memphis to make two starts before coming back to pitch in a doubleheader on Sept. 17, ran off 8⅔ scoreless innings, striking out eight and walking just two in a 12-0 win over Norfolk Tuesday night.
Marmol opined that the minor-league pitch clock might help speed up the deliberate right-hander and admitted that that was his hope.
“That’s awesome,” said Marmol, who was looking forward to seeing and reading more about it.
“I think that will be helpful, but I’m curious to see what other adjustments were made," said Marmol. "But the pace of it allows him to repeat more. When you take so much more time between pitches, it’s hard to repeat.”
With the return of a healthy Jack Flaherty, there will be quite a scramble for starting spots in a likely postseason.
“That’s a good thing, right?” said Marmol.
“I think it’s great to have those kinds of tough decisions.”
Quintana now has beaten 26 major league teams by defeating the Nationals for the first time. Only Arizona, Philadelphia and both Chicago teams (he pitched for both) remain.
“All my stuff was really good today,” said Quintana, who was happy he was ahead more in the count. On Tuesday, he made more extensive use of his fastball and change-up.
Quintana complimented the pitch-calling of catcher Andrew Knizner, and the catcher responded, “I think his repertoire actually plays (well) at Busch — to use that fastball because it takes a real strong hit to get it out. So we can attack with that fastball, and he has confidence like, 'Oh, they're not going to just get a cheap homer.’
"So really, he could probably survive a lot of games just by using his fastball up and in and his sinker down and away to righties. But ... he was able to mix in that off-speed and really keep them off balance.”
Afterward, Quintana was sporting a special Albert Pujols cap.
“It’s the only chance I have — this year,” he said, laughing.
The Nationals, who blanked the Cardinals on Monday, took the first lead on Tuesday in the second inning. It became something of a hairy issue.
Donovan, who has lots of it, hit his first homer since June 26 to tie the score in the fourth. He had been 0 for 12 until that hit.
Nolan Gorman, who had been 1 for 16 with nine strikeouts, doubled in a run in the three-run fourth and homered in the seventh, the 11th of his 14 homers that have been struck with two strikes. Gorman had his hair sheared to a military look Tuesday.
“It could be the hair. It could be the work,” he said, smiling. “Whatever you guys want to play with. I've done it before. This is the way I usually wear my hair.”
Marmol said, “The new haircut has ‘knocks' in it.
"We needed it. And he needed it. Hopefully, that’s something he can build off from a confidence standpoint.”
But the shaggy-haired and bearded Donovan said, “If you’re wondering if I’m going to cut mine ... no. I guess there’s hits in haircuts but not for me.”
Donovan and Gorman say they talk all the time as rookies who have come up together this year. But Donovan had some video he wanted the fellow left-handed-hitting batter to see. The video, which Donovan sent Monday, came from the 2020 alternate spring training site during a COVID year, when there was no minor league season and the top players in the system played in simulated games at Springfield, Missouri.
One of the things Gorman gleaned from the video was the timing of his leg kick, which he seemed to time quite well when he waited on a Steve Cishek off-speed pitch for his home run.
The Cardinals fans who remained were hoping for one more home run. Pujols pinch hit for Donovan against left-hander Jake McGee in the eighth. But Pujols flied to left field. He remains at 695 career homers.
The Cardinals’ run differential over their opponents still is a hefty 135, third-best in the league. They are 11-2 in games following a shutout loss.
And they are two victories away from their 15th consecutive winning season, But that is not even their goal.