As the attention and applause rightfully shower Cardinals legends Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols this weekend at Busch Stadium — and please don’t forget to give Adam Wainwright plenty of both as well, just in case — let’s not forget to keep an eye on the others.
The Cardinals have played themselves into the position of being able to treat their final regular-season homestand as a feel-good celebration, and for good reason. A byproduct of regaining control of the division is the benefit of smelling the roses. Pujols is back home after hitting his 700th home run on the road. Molina and Wainwright will make their final regular-season start as a battery on Sunday. Nothing the Cardinals do against the Pirates will help or hurt how they enter the postseason or who they host once there. So don’t be shocked if that reality shows.
Some of Friday’s pregame festivities included autographing in gold Sharpie the leftover bottles of bubbly from the clinch in Milwaukee and handing out celebratory shirts honoring Pujols’ swat of 700. One of two TVs in the clubhouse showed a floating graphic announcing the Cardinals as the division champions. Now is a time for the regulars to either get right or rest, and they can be trusted to know which is best.
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“This will be one where I sit back and take it in,” manager Oli Marmol said. “Because it won’t happen again, you know? They are playing their last regular-season games. That’s meaningful. It’s to be celebrated. It’s to be honored.”
But even as the Cardinals prepared to award Pujols with a gold bat before he socked home run No. 701, there were snapshots of players who still have plenty on the line entering a stretch of six consecutive games against Pittsburgh.
Friday starter Jack Flaherty could be found alone in the video room while scouting his Pittsburgh opponent one final time. Corey Dickerson retaped the handle of his bat in the dugout only to examine it, pull all of the tape off and start over again. Tyler O’Neill discussed with the team his hamstring status as he once again aims to salvage a lost season.
How the Cardinals will enter the postseason is cemented. Who will be with the Cardinals when they get there is still very much under examination.
Marmol, his staff and members of the analytics department spent part of their pregame in a deep-dive conversation debating and discussing potential approaches to the postseason rotation. Nothing was finalized when the huddles broke. Also undecided at the moment is if the Cardinals will carry an even-split 13 pitchers and 13 position players for the wild-card series or opt for a deeper bench with 12 pitchers and 14 position players for the best-of-three meeting, most likely against the Phillies or the Brewers unless the Padres plummet. The Cardinals are planning on carrying two catchers and could opt to continue to pair Andrew Knizner with Miles Mikolas in the playoffs.
Nine position players — if health holds — look like absolute locks here: Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Pujols, Tommy Edman, Brendan Donovan, Dylan Carlson, Lars Nootbaar and both catchers.
There will be others, Marmol acknowledged Friday, who use this final week to secure or surrender their place.
“There are still meaningful games where we want to evaluate our best shot for the next round,” he said.
Starting in left field and hitting sixth Friday was Juan Yepez, who had averaged .304 with a .478 slugging percentage since his return from Class AAA in late August. He’s coming on strong while Dickerson struggles and O’Neill is trying to prove his hamstring can hold.
Paul DeJong, valued by the manager as a late-game defensive replacement at shortstop, is expected to be safe because of his glove. But he is averaging .111 and slugging .111 over the past two weeks of what has been a disastrous season.
Dickerson, after pulling a sour start to the season back from the edge of elimination, is struggling once more. His two-week average and slugging percentage (.063) are lower than DeJong’s, and his defense is not why he’s on the team.
Could Alec Burleson, averaging .250 and slugging .438 over the past two weeks, give Dickerson a run for his spot?
Like DeJong, outfielder Ben DeLuizio is valued because of his defense and because of his elite speed as a base runner. But can the Cardinals afford to stock their bench with two catchers and two glove-first defenders in DeJong and DeLuzio?
Rookie Nolan Gorman did not catch fire with Class AAA Memphis after the left-handed hitter with pop and a strikeout problem was demoted, and he is now out of minor league at-bats to prove he can but slumps sustained above him could create a chance. Especially if the Phillies and their right-hand-dominant bullpen become the match. Assuming Gorman could not offer some needed thump off the bench could be a mistake in a modern playoff that prioritizes power. Gorman, for what it’s worth, has as many home runs this season as both O’Neill (14) and Nootbaar.
Brewing beneath the pomp and circumstance this celebratory weekend is a hard October reality.
For some Cardinals, these final regular-season games are the most important of the year.