Given all of their issues and injuries over a long and often frustrating season, the Cardinals' slow rise to first place in the NL Central is pretty remarkable.
Or is it?
Please don't misunderstand me.
I'm here to praise the Cardinals -- not diminish what they've done here.
But it's been an odd year in the NL Central.
If a good but flawed team wanted to pick a year ....
Where their offense would turn cold ...
A year where a strong rotation would begin to unravel right around the time of the All-Star break ...
A year where their injury-related losses included important figures such as catcher Yadier Molina and young starting pitcher Michael Wacha ...
A year where their roster continued to transition, with an influx of young starting position players Kolten Wong and Oscar Taveras ...
A year where their bench (until recently) had been notoriously weak ..
Well, this is the right season to deal with all of that and still end up moving into first place on Sept. 1.
How did his happen?
What I'm about to say is paradoxical, but here goes:
The inconsistent Cardinals got here with their consistency.
Relative to what was expected from a STL team that won 97 games and the NL pennant last season, the Cardinals have been an inconsistent bunch in 2014.
I don't have to toss in a bunch of numbers here. If you follow the team you'll know that even the foundation players -- guys like Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday -- have experienced not only the usual ups and downs but extreme fluctuations in performance.
Moreover, a few of the Cards' prized young pitchers --most notably starter Shelby Miller and relievers Kevin Siegrist and Carlos Martinez -- took a step back in 2014. (But can still be valuable in the final month.)
As a team the Cardinals have been swerving all season.
The Cardinals' starting-pitching ERA (3.35) was ranked 5th in the majors before the All-Star break. And after the All-Star break their starting-pitching ERA (4.29) ranks 24th.
The Cardinals' offense slummed near the bottom of the MLB ranking for average runs per game for a large section of the season -- but since July 31st the Cardinals rank 6th in the majors with an average of 4.48 runs per game.
But for all of their internal inconsistency, the Cardinals never fell apart to drift into a hopeless deficit position.
For all of their internal inconsistency, the Cardinals have climbed to the top of the division (at least for now) because they've been MORE consistent than the other NL Central contenders.
And really, that explains everything. The Cardinals have struggled to establish traction this season. They haven't had any real extensive stretches of winning. But they've also avoided the kind of extended droughts or free-falling stretches that have hurt Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati this season.
The key stat here: the Cardinals are the only team in the NL Central to have a winning record in each month of the season.
I didn't say they were beautiful-baseball months; not at all. But the Cardinals still managed to finish on the winning side in each of the first five months of the season.
Let's take a look:
* The Cardinals were:
15-14 in March-April ...
15-12 in May ...
14-13 in June ...
13-11 in July ...
16-13 in August ...
Nothing great right there. But in a year in which little has come easy for the Cardinals, five consecutive winning months is impressive. In my opinion, anyway.
* By contrast, the Brewers had a great April (20-8) but followed with losing records in three of the next four months: May (13 and 15), July (9 and 16) and August (13 and 14.) The Brewers have had some hideous streaks this season. They went 1-11 from June 29 through July 12, and are currently stuck in a rut of six consecutive losses as part of a 2-9 stretch. The Brewers have had four stretches of losing at least four consecutive games this season.
* The Pirates haven't been as inconsistent as the Brewers. But the Pirates haven't been as consistent as the Cardinals, either. The Pirates had a losing April (10-16) and were 14-14 in August. The Pirates had a 4-15 skid in April, and lost seven in a row from Aug 13-19. Related note: considering their 5-11 mark against Milwaukee this season, the Pirates are fortunate to be only two games behind the second-place Brewers and three in back of the Cardinals at this late stage. The Pirates are 13-20 combined vs. STL and MIL this season.
* The Reds have had only one winning month, going 18-10 in June.
* The rebuilding, retooled Cubs personify the erratic nature of the division and the National League. The Cubs are 62-76 overall, but they've actually had more winning months (two) than the Brewers (one) since the end of April. And at 20-15, the Cubs have MLB's eighth-best record since July 28. As the Cardinals and the Brewers have discovered, the Cubs aren't much fun to play these days.
* Of the three teams jockeying for the lead in the NL Central the Cardinals have been the best in division play. St. Louis (34-23) is a +11 in division games, compared to +3 for the Brewers (29-26) and minus 6 for the Pirates (28-34.)
For all of their average-quality baseball in 2014, the Cardinals have survived by avoiding prolonged meltdowns. And they've done the best job of taking care of business inside the division.
To this stage their season-worst losing streak has been four games. That's happened only twice. And the Cards' poorest stretch was losing eight of 10 beginning May 28.
The Cardinals don't have a winning streak longer than five games. But even during the toughest times, they've cranked out enough wins to stop the bleeding and stay within reach of the NL Central's top spot.
The Brewers let the Cardinals and Pirates stay around by failing to build on their strong April.
Milwaukee is 53-57 since April 30th .... and a terrible 22-32 since June 29th.
In that context, is the Cardinals' march to first place really that remarkable?
When the team you're trying to catch has a losing record since the end of April, obviously you're going to have an opportunity to win the division.
After all, the Cardinals managed to move into first place Monday despite having a 5-6 record in their last 11 games.
So what does that say?
It's been that kind of year in the NL Central. But all that matters now is finishing strong. And to their credit, the Cardinals were able to hang tough through this challenging 2014 to put themselves in position to win it at the end.
Thanks for reading ...