Forgive fans if they didn’t feel the playoff race electricity Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium.
They mostly felt heat and humidity instead as the Cardinals outlasted the Pirates 11-9 during that 3-hour, 40-minute slog.
Yet that stunning comeback did add more drama to an MLB season that got more interesting in recent weeks. The Cardinals are in a three-way race for the National League Central title and in the NL wild-card chase featuring at least seven teams.
This late scramble can’t cure all that’s wrong with Our National Pastime, but it could give the industry a nice boost while it wrestles with big issues.
The ponderous pace of play is a primary concern, as Cardinals fans experienced again Sunday. Style of play remains problematic, because of the poisonous mix of max-effort pitching, extreme fielding shifts, launch angle obsession and juiced baseballs.
We’re seeing lots of homers . . . but also many strikeouts and much standing around.
Replay challenges have become weird, with obviously wrong calls being upheld upon review. Why stop games just to compound errors? That’s stupid.
And don’t get us started on the potential work stoppage coming down the pike.
On the field, though, the competition has become compelling. The Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers are having it out in the NL Central. Each team is just good enough to hang in the race, but too flawed to pull away.
The Cardinals have 16 games remaining against the Cubs and Brewers, so they control their own situation in this race. They play the Cubs seven times in their final 10 games, which should be fun.
The Brewers drew more than 121,000 fans to Miller Park for their weekend series with Texas while winning two of the three one-run games. They hope to reach postseason play in consecutive years for the first time since 1981-82.
As for the Cubs, manager Joe Maddon is in the final year of his contract. His team has struggled on the road, and it closes the season with a six-game trip — with the final three games Busch Stadium.
Over in the NL East, the streaking Washington Nationals and New York Mets could yet apply pressure on the first-place Atlanta Braves.
The Nationals appeared dead after losing 31 of their first 50 games amid an injury epidemic, but improbably they have roared back to within six games of the Braves.
The Mets appeared finished at the All-Star break. They were 40-51 on July 12 before miraculously springing to life.
Novice general manager Brodie Van Wagenen doubled down on his preseason boast and opted to go for it at the trade deadline. He held on to pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler, added pitcher Marcus Stroman and got rewarded.
Since the All-Star break the Mets have posted a 2.66 rotation ERA, making the rest of the league jealous. They won 13 of 14 games heading into last weekend’s series with Washington, then took two of three games from the Nationals while drawing more than 124,00 fans to Citi Field.
“We have all the confidence in the world right now with us,” Mets utility man J.D. Davis told reporters. “But some things that we’re doing right now, we’re surprising ourselves.”
The wild-card race is a free-for-all. Seldom will you see so many teams battling so hard just to reach the Bud Selig Play-In Game. Often GMs decide not to go “all in” to bid for potentially one postseason date.
That’s not the case this year.
The Nationals hold the top wild-card slot, one game up on the second-slot Cardinals, after both won Tuesday. If Our Town’s Max Scherzer is healthy and available for the single-elimination game, who wants to face Washington?
Then there were five teams within 3½ games in the wild-card race on Monday morning: the Brewers, Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants. Even the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres have kept contact with the pack.
The Giants should have bailed on the season to expedite their needed rebuilding. But in manager Bruce Bochy’s farewell season they played on. So did the Reds, who added high-end starting pitcher Trevor Bauer at the deadline.
Over the American League, the surging Cleveland Indians erased Minnesota’s 11½-game Central Division lead. Those teams will meet six more times next month.
“It says a lot about the guys we have in this clubhouse,” Indians reliever Brad Hand told reporters Monday night. “Nobody threw in the towel. Nobody gave up, and we all battled together. And to be where we’re at today — back in first place — is something we should all be proud of, but we got a lot of work left to do and we got a lot of season left.”
In the AL wild-card chase, Tommy Pham’s Tampa Bay Rays and Stephen Piscotty’s Oakland A’s probably will battle the AL Central runner-up for the two slots. Through Monday’s games, only four games separated the Twins, Rays and A’s.
Commissioner Rob Manfred would love to see the Boston Red Sox rally Mets-like into the picture and drive up national TV ratings, but that seems unlikely.
Even without higher stakes attached to the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, we’ll see many teams playing meaningful games in September. That’s great news for a sport that needs it.