Subscribe for 99¢

Benjamin Hochman is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Cardinals host Astros at Busch

Cardinals manager Mike Shildt yanks starting pitcher Daniel Ponce de Leon in the third inning of the July 27 game against the Houston Astros. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

Once the clock ticked into Monday, there were 63 hours until the trade deadline and 63 days until the season ends. The first 63 will directly impact the second. Every hour there isn’t a trade — or every trade that doesn’t involve the St. Louis Cardinals — the city will simmer.

The baseball game on Tuesday will feel like it has football-game implications, because it’s Cards-Cubs, first place vs. first place. And even with some minor-league action, the ramifications will have reverberations, as we monitor the rehab assignments of the ready-to-mash Marcell Ozuna and the M*A*S*H’d Matt Carpenter.

And when the deadline hits at 3 p.m. Wednesday, we’ll have a gauge on where the roster stands but still uncertainty about the standings. This is going to be tight until Cards-Cubs on Sept. 29, the final day of the regular season.

If the Cards miss the playoffs, again, it’s understandable that some fan frustration turns into fury. Groundhog Day? Four in a row and you’re approaching Groundhog Half-Decade. The team publicly has said it will be a “buyer.” These 63 hours are like the “playoffs” for the front office. This is the executives’ chance to maximize their aggressiveness and negotiation and dealing savvy.

There is a fine line between a stupid trade and a risky trade, but if there was ever a time to make a risky one, it’s 2019. Noah Syndergaard, Robbie Ray, maybe another name the public doesn’t know yet. Find a guy to fill that fifth starting pitching slot, because Daniel Ponce de Leon still is searching.

The Cards and Cubs are both 56-49 and have swept the other in each of the three series they have played this season, two in Chicago and one in St. Louis. All were three-game sets.

“Thinking back to the last time we played them, we owe them a few,” the Cardinals’ Paul DeJong said. “Sweeps thus far. Hopefully that continues for us at home here. For us, I think we’ve played well this weekend, we just didn’t quite get the results. I like the way we competed and stayed in the game.”

That’s the thing about this club. A lot of talk about the process and approach at the plate. A lot of talk about hustle and fundamentals. But you know who else has good processes and fundamentals? Every good team. Notably the Houston Astros, who strolled into town and took two of three. After losing Sunday, Cards manager Mike Shildt was extremely complimentary of his team’s intensity. Twice he said they “laid it out.” And he’s not wrong. But the Cardinals also made two errors, and two more near-errors. And the Cardinals were one for 10 on Sunday with runners in scoring position.

There are some baseball stat folks who say hitting averages with runner in scoring position generally evens out, because an at-bat is an at-bat, regardless if there are baserunners.

But as DeJong described Sunday, “I think you get pitched a little different,” with runners in scoring position. “I think what has to happen is a change of mindset — guys have to put the pressure back on the pitchers as opposed to on themselves. In that case, you’re a little more selective and you’re really hunting the middle of the zone.”

Well, the Cards aren’t very good with RISP. They entered Sunday 13th in the National League in OPS with runners in scoring position. When you’re near the Marlins in any stat category, that can’t be good.

And while “The Pauls” have been hitting well this month, Goldschmidt and DeJong struggled Sunday with numerous ducks on the pond. And Sunday’s game was an important one. This was the day to win a series against a team that recently won the World Series. A chance to go into the Cubs series as winners of the previous five series. Instead? Houston 6, St. Louis 2.

“Listen, we had some opportunities for sure that we missed,” Shildt said. “Left some guys out there and weren’t able to execute. Give some credit to (Wade) Miley — he made some really good pitches in those situations. Didn’t make any mistakes giving us things to hit, and we just weren’t able to bring guys home when we had opportunities that would’ve created a different ballgame for us.”

The implications of the Cubs series are obvious. Just like the Cards had the chance to shoo away Pittsburgh and Cincinnati this month, here is a chance to create ample space between a division foe. And not just any foe. The thorn.

To win this series, what will the key be? To quote Yankees manager Aaron Boone, it’s being “savages” in the batter’s box. It’s all about the count.

“We’ve got to throw strikes, we’ve got to be ahead in the count — control counts on both sides of the equation,” Shildt said. “We get good pitches to hit, we take our good swings, we’ll be in good shape if we continue to play solid defense, run the bases, play fundamentally sound, play smart and compete like we’re capable of competing. Which we will, it’s a habit of this team. They give no quarter.

"It’s really about controlling counts. We’ve got to make sure we’re forcing the other team to put the ball in play. And when we get ahead in counts, it’s usually weaker contact, and we have to be able to continue to look to stay in the zone and have a good plan, which we had. I liked our plan the whole series against these guys. They pitch the ball well. But we had a really good plan.”

So did the Astros.

Ozuna’s possible return next weekend could be massive. One thing that the Cardinals haven’t had is Ozuna and Goldschmidt simultaneously slugging like the All-Stars they have been. Carpenter’s return could be murky. He’s not hitting during this rehab stint. Tommy Edman and Yairo Munoz are contributing in numerous facets.

Backs of baseball cards should not get a guy playing time in 2019. This is too important of a stretch. Use the next 63 hours to conquer the following 63 days. It will take hitting on a big trade . . . and with runners in scoring position.

Cardinals Update e-newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.