As the days in September count down, the World Series dreams of Cardinal Nation wind up.
Barring an unlikely collapse and losing an 8 1/2-game division lead to the Brewers in 14 games, the Cardinals should take the National League Central crown and make the playoffs. They'll more than likely finish as the NL's No. 3 seed, pitted against the lowest NL wild card team, the No. 6 seed, in MLB's new 12-team playoff format.
However, St. Louis needs to tie certain loose ends before it shifts its attention to October. The Redbirds look to bolster their offense, in particular, and improve on their 87-61 record to enter the postseason on a roll.
Here are five stories to follow as the Cardinals embark on an eight-game road trip to San Diego, Los Angeles and Milwaukee, beginning with a future Hall of Famer's date with history.
1. When will Albert hit No. 700?
Cardinals fans who want to witness Albert Pujols’ historic milestone might want to travel with the team. At the rate he’s going, the 42-year-old legend will likely crush his 700th career home run in California. In a limited role, he’s averaging 14.36 at-bats per home run, which would trail only Philadelphia’s Kyle Schwarber for best in the NL. It’s been nine at-bats since he last went deep.
The Machine has raged at the plate since his appearance at July’s All-Star Game, hitting .306 with 13 home runs and a brilliant 1.048 OPS. Despite not playing every day since the Midsummer Classic, he has drawn from the fountain of youth in what he says will be his final season in the majors.
Pujols has hit 11 of his 19 bombs this season on the road, in just 47 road games. Expect Albert to clear the 700 mark and continue to menace pitchers well into October.
2. Will increased contact yield positive results?
One good thing Cardinals hitters have going for them in September: They’re not striking out. St. Louis’ 17.3% strikeout rate this month is the NL's lowest, and just shy of the Cleveland Guardians for best in baseball.
The catch: They’re not hitting the ball hard and are hitting into some bad luck. Per Fangraphs.com, the Cardinals' hard-hit rate of 26.7% is better than only the Marlins' in the month of September. The Cardinals have a .246 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) - second-lowest in the NL - and hitting .226 overall.
Peaks and valleys happen in a 162-game season. Manager Oli Marmol expressed optimism that Monday’s day off would benefit his sluggers down the stretch. The Redbirds also get a day off next Monday between the Dodgers and Brewers series.
Perhaps reinforcements like Juan Yepez will help the cause.
3. Will the Cardinals play spoiler for any teams in the playoff hunt?
St. Louis' playoff position is somewhat clear; however, the Cardinals will visit two opponents enmeshed in a close NL wild card race: the Padres and Brewers.
San Diego traded some of its prized prospects to Washington for 23-year-old superstar outfielder Juan Soto. However, the team is just 23-20 since the acquisition, and Soto has slugged just four home runs with a .752 OPS in 38 games. San Diego is 23-34 against teams with winning records.
The Padres currently hold the second of three wild card spots in this year’s expanded playoff format; they’re a half game above the Phillies, who are 2 1/2 games above the Brewers.
Milwaukee remains an intriguing contender; in September, Brewers pitchers are inducing the highest rate of ground balls in the majors. On offense, Willy Adames is hitting to the tune of a .299 average and four home runs this month. He's mashed 30 taters on the season.
The Brewers are hosting the NL East-leading Mets and will visit the Reds before the Cardinals come to town. A brief two-game set might not be enough for St. Louis to sink its division rival, as Milwaukee will host the lowly Marlins and Diamondbacks to close the regular season.
4. Can the "Most Valuable Pair" heat up with October looming?
Perhaps the Triple Crown dream season has sailed past Paul Goldschmidt, who is now fourth in the league in homers, four behind Schwarber. However, Goldy still has a shot at the NL RBI title (second), the batting crown (second) and – what’s more – the MVP.
That is, if Nolan Arenado doesn’t get it first.
Per Fangraphs, the dynamic duo leads the NL in wins above replacement (WAR) – Goldy with 7.1 and Arenado at 6.9. Both sluggers have cooled off some in September, with Arenado batting .203 and hitting one home run. Goldschmidt continues to get on base at an impressive clip, including a 14.3% walk rate. The value they’ve added to the heart of the order has carried St. Louis for parts of this season.
5. How will Ryan Helsley stack up against NL contenders before his first postseason as closer?
You’ve seen the electric entrance for the All-Star right-hander; the stadium goes dark and AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” blasts as Helsley takes the bump. After tweaking his late-game options this season, Marmol decided on the fireballer as closer.
Helsley has rewarded the team, converting all six save opportunities in September. October save spots are a different animal, and this road trip should prove a valuable test as he goes up against potential future postseason foes.