The playoff situation for the St. Louis Cardinals remains uncertain heading into a three-game series at the Los Angeles Dodgers that starts Friday night. And yet, no matter who the Cardinals face in the postseason, their collective mood should have improved because of a much-needed 5-4 victory on Thursday against a possible opponent in the first round, the San Diego Padres.
With St. Louis overdue for something positive to happen on offense, rookie Brendan Donovan lined a lead-flipping grand slam an estimated 418 feet to right field in the top of the seventh inning against right-hander Nick Martinez. The Cardinals came in having been shut out for three straight games and had scored only one run in the game before that.
Even as St. Louis collects wins and continues to lower its magic number to clinch the National League Central (it's five over the second-place Milwaukee Brewers), the offense collectively has fallen off this month. Fourth in scoring all season, the Cards rank 23rd in runs scored and 21st in home runs in September. Leading MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt has cooled off, slugger Nolan Arenado is slumping and legend Albert Pujols can't go deep every time. Pujols did go 1-for-4 against the Padres on Thursday but remains at 698 career homers after flying deep to center in his final turn.
Donovan told Bally Sports Midwest reporter Jim Hayes in a postgame interview that the Cardinals have stayed confident and ready because their methods of preparation haven't changed from when things were going well at the plate.
"We knew eventually it would turn. We just had to keep going,” Donovan said. “If you hit the panic button in this game, that's when things start to snowball."
Donovan and fellow rookie Lars Nootbaar went deep to help turn the finale of the three-game set at Petco Park and give the Cards a final season-series edge of 4-2 against San Diego. Other than having a 9-8 record against the Brewers, it's St. Louis' only regular-season advantage against a potential playoff opponent. Collectively, the Cardinals are 22-25 against likely playoff opponents, having been outscored 190-169 in those games. Not ideal, but also not definitive.
Plus, there's the axiom about everyone having a clean slate in the playoffs. Redbirds fans who are old enough fondly remember the 2006 season, when the Cards won just 83 games in the regular season before taking the World Series. Sometimes — a lot of times — what happens during the regular season stays there, and there’s no carryover at all.
As the No. 3 seed in the NL, St. Louis would face the No. 6 seed Philadelphia Phillies if the playoffs started today, but the wild card order is hard to predict. The Dodgers have a first-round bye locked down, and the Cardinals are unlikely to overtake the NL East winner (New York Mets or Atlanta Braves) for the league's other bye. That means they would be unlikely to see the Dodgers until a hypothetical NL Championship Series.
No matter, any late-season games against fellow contenders can help to give clubs an idea of where they stand against their peers. In addition to facing the Padres, and the upcoming series at Dodger Stadium, St. Louis finishes its road trip next week with two games against the Brewers at American Family Field. The Cardinals conclude the regular season with six games against the Pittsburgh Pirates, including three at PNC Park to close the schedule.
The Dodgers series can only shed so much light on how St. Louis stacks up against the team with the best record. Already set with its postseason position and wanting to avoid fatigue and injury, L.A. won't necessarily go all out to win any remaining series in the regular season. It's possible regulars will be rotated in and out to avoid getting stale. Still, few teams are as deep as the Dodgers.
As for the pitching matchups, left-hander José Quintana faces another lefty, Andrew Heaney, in the opener. Heaney is having his best personal season, but St. Louis hits better against left-handers, notably Pujols, who is trying to join Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds as the only batters to reach at least 700 career home runs. Pujols also played for the Dodgers for 85 games a season ago, as if we were short on subplots. He also got a surreal pinch-hitting appearance against the Cards in the NL wild-card game.
Two more lefties square off Saturday — Jordan Montgomery and L.A.’s Clayton Kershaw — with St. Louis righty Adam Wainwright facing yet another southpaw, All-Star Tyler Anderson, on Sunday night.
For the Cardinals to beat the Dodgers when it counts, and to have a chance against anyone in the playoffs, it likely will take everything they have. But St. Louis has depth too, or else it wouldn't have the sixth-best record in MLB.
Donovan is batting .279/.390/.377 with 54 walks and 24 extra-base hits to give him one of the best rookie stat lines in the majors. After starting the season as a utility player, he has taken over the second base job and typically bats at or near the top of the order. In addition to his important complementary role on offense, Donovan also is ranked among the 50 best MLB players overall on defense via Fielding Bible.
Donovan is a newcomer, but knowing his place among a stacked roster frees him to just do his part.
"Look at this clubhouse: It's a group of winners," Donovan said. "They know what it takes. We just keep showing up, doing our routines and playing hard."