by Rob Raines
The Cardinals greeted September with their biggest lead, six games, in the final month of the season since they led the NL Central by ten games in 2009.
Trying to complete the division winning job is just one of many reasons why this month is a must watch for Cardinals fans.
Here are some of these reasons:
Albert Pujols. Bringing the former Cardinal home for the final season of his career might have been seen as an emotional move when the year began, but not now. Every Pujols at-bat for the rest of the season will bring the feeling of watching Mark McGwire follow his own single-season home run record in 1998.
Entering the month Pujols is just two innings away from tying Alex Rodriguez’s 696 home runs, the fourth-highest total in baseball history. He’s six years away from joining Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth as the only players in history to hit 700 or more career home runs.
Pujols won’t be in the lineup every day, but he believes he will start every time the Cardinals face a left fielder and also in some games against righthanders. Since the All-Star break, he has hit nine home runs in 78 at-bats, or an average of one home run per nine at-bats. At this pace, he would need about 60 batters in his last 31 games to get six home runs which would get him to 700.
Paul Goldschmidt. A slam dunk to become the first Cardinals to win the MVP award since Pujols won it for the third time in 2009, Goldschmidt is also aiming for a feat not accomplished in the National League since 1937.
This was the year Joe Medwick won the Triple Crown, and no NL batsman has since led the league in average, home runs, and RBIs in the same year. Goldschmidt at least has a chance to do so.
He started the month with the league’s best average, . 332, seven points ahead of the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman. He tied for the league lead in RBIs with 105 with Pete Alonso of the Mets. The hardest class for Goldschmidt to win will likely be the home podium. He started the second month in the league with 33 starters, just three short of his career high of 36, and three behind league leader Kyle Schwarber of the Phillies.
Adam Wainwright and Yadir Molina. The duo start the month with 322 combined starts, two short of achieving the major league record of 324 starts by pitcher and catcher set by Tigers Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan.
If the current rotation remains the same, Wainwright and Molina should tie that record on September 8 at home against Washington, and break that record on September 13 or 14 against the Brewers at Busch Stadium. Wainwright will probably make another five or six starts in the regular season, but he will almost certainly not be able to reach 200 wins in his career. The month starts with 193.
Nolan Arenado He went into September with 89 RBI, 11 short of reaching 100 for the second time in as many years as a Cardinal. With Goldschmidt’s total already in triple digits, that would give the Cardinals two players with 100 or more RBI in the same season for the first time since 2010, when Pujols drove in 118 and Matt Holliday finished with 103.
A good final month will also help Arenado’s standing in the MVP voting and possibly help move Goldschmidt forward in his quest for the Triple Crown.
Jack Flaherty. It was essentially a lost season for Flaherty, as he started more minor league relievers (seven times) than he started games for the Cardinals (three). That could change in September and a good month will help set Flaherty to be someone the team can count on for their bid into the postseason deep in October.
Flaherty is scheduled to return to the rotation on Labor Day, September 5, against the Nationals. There will be 28 regular season games left on the Cardinals’ schedule at that point, which means there should likely be enough time for him to start five games in the postseason prep.
The race for second place. If the Cardinals need another incentive to keep pushing for the best record they can, these numbers will be it. The two division champions who finish with the best records in the league will receive a first round in the new expanded playoff format. The division champion with the third-best record will play the wild card playoffs in the first round, with the best-of-three series all at home.
With a 76-55 record going into September, the Cardinals trail the Mets, the current leader in the East, by seven games. The Mets have three games left against the Braves, who are three games behind New York in the National League MLB.
The Cardinals have no chance of catching the Dodgers, who are already 90 wins.
While those are the main reasons to continue to watch the Cardinals in September, and a few more regular season games in October, there are a few other players fans should pay attention to, especially with an eye on how this will affect the team in October. :
Left hand painkillers. After cycling through several options, the team enters September with two less experienced left-handed options, Zack Thompson and JoJo Romero, in the bullpen. They are also the only ones who have succeeded this season.
The combination of Genesis Cabrera, Packy Naughton, TJ McFarland, and Matthew Liberatore (five innings pitched) allowed 68 earned runs in 110 1/3 innings pitched, a right of 5.55. All of them are currently back in Memphis.
Thompson allowed only one run in 19 innings while Romero, who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Phillies for Edmundo Sosa, allowed no run in five innings, recording six hits. How manager Oli Marmol chooses to use them during the final month of the season could be key to the bullpen’s overall success.
Jordan Hicks. Remember when Hicks started the year as a starter? This didn’t work. Since returning to the bullpen, Hicks has held opposing batters to a . 196 average, but the hits have been costly. He allowed 19 hits in 97 at-bats, but also gave up 14 runs, resulting in a 4.61 ERA, in part because of 12 walks in 27 1/3 innings.
Hicks is the Cardinals’ best option as the bridge playwright who can get a lead to Ryan Helsley in the ninth inning, but only if he can cut back on walks and get key runs when the game is on the line in the middle and late innings.
Lars Nutbarr and Brendan Donovan. Nootbaar hit the lead for the first time on August 11 and moved Donovan to second in the batting order on a regular basis against righthanders on August 17, cementing both points in the lineup and giving Goldschmidt and Arenado several RBI opportunities.
406 on-base percentage in the lead, while Donovan has a 0.420 on-base percentage while hitting second. Together, they scored 23 runs batted in 26 games while sitting in the top two in the batting order.
The Cardinals have used five more leadoff hitters this season, who have a combined batting average of 0.233.
Tyler O’Neal. It’s been an injury-plagued and slumping season for O’Neal, but he’s shown flashes of strength lately, finishing August with seven homers and 20 RBIs for the month.
O’Neal coming so close to finding the stroke he hit last September — when he hit 13 homers and drove in 30 home runs — should help take some of the pressure off Goldschmidt and Arenado and could go a long way toward erasing bad memories from the first four months of their career. this season.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports