St. Louis Cardinals: Five keys to the 2018 regular season part four

PHOENIX, AZ - JUNE 27: Manager Mike Matheny
PHOENIX, AZ - JUNE 27: Manager Mike Matheny /

With just one day away from Opening Day, I take a look at another key for success in the 2018 season for the St. Louis Cardinals.

If you missed parts one, two, and three of this series, check them out under the Editorial tab on Redbird Rants. In part one I discussed starting pitching and the need for consistency. Part two discussed the bullpen’s urgency to shut games down. Earlier today I released part three in which I discussed how the lineup needs to produce in order to help compensate for any pitching issues, especially from the St. Louis Cardinals young starters.

My next key for success this season is all about the NL Central Division.

A better showing in the NL Central

Here is a fun fact for you. Last year’s divisional record of 34-42 was the worst divisional record the St. Louis Cardinals have had since the 2008 season with a 36-41 record. To no coincidence, the 2008 St. Louis Cardinals finished in fourth place in the NL Central behind Chicago, Milwaukee, and Houston. As we all know the 2017 Cardinals finished in third place thanks to their divisional record.

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If the Cardinals intend to compete in the NL Central this season, they must change their losing ways in the division back to winning ways. Consider the last three records of the NL Central division champs of 46-30 in 2017, 50-25 in 2016, and 46-30 in 2015. All three teams at least hit the 46-win mark on their way to a division title.

How does this affect the St. Louis Cardinals in 2018?

In their first 95 games, or the up until the All-star break, the Cardinals will face their divisional opponents a whopping 45 times.

That’s roughly 47% of the first 95 games and in turn is roughly 60% of their divisional play in the first 95 games. In 2017, they only played divisional opponents 37 times before the All-Star break.

The breakdown of how many times they face their opponents is as follows:

  • Cincinnati: 13 games
  • Pittsburgh: 10 games
  • Milwaukee: 13 games
  • Chicago: 9 games

In order for the Cardinals to have success this season and capture a division crown a couple of things need to happen.

  1. The Cardinals must capitalize on the weaker teams in the NL Central. Twenty-three games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh will be a big boost throughout the first half of the season. However, it’s up to the Redbirds to care of business. Last season the Cardinals went 11-8 against Pittsburgh and 10-9 against the Reds. That was obviously not good enough and won’t be again this year, especially with a weakened Pirates team from previous years.
  2. The Cardinals must play better against the top two rivals in the division. The Cardinals went an abysmal 5-14 against the division champ Cubs and 8-11 against the Brew Crew. There is some leeway when it comes to the Cubs, seeing as they only play each other nine times. But there is no excuse to be beaten 14 times in a season. I understand the Cubs are a better team, but the Cardinals know them well enough. The same can be said about the Brew Crew this year. The only difference is the Brewers are better than last year, by far. So if you thought an 8-11 record wasn’t so bad, the Cardinals would be careful not to slip into a deeper hole against them in their first thirteen meetings.
  3. The last thing they need is a bit of fortune thrown their way as well. They will need the Pirates and Reds to play the other two teams hard. They’ll also need the Cubs and Brewers to split as many games as possible when the Cardinals win.

The whole point though is the Cardinals have an opportunity to make a major claim in the divisional race in the first 95 games of the season. They must play better in the division. They cannot be like last year and hang their hat on their record outside of the division.

If you look at the second half of the schedule, the Cardinals’ first ten games after the All-Star break are against NL Central opponents. So they better use their break wisely because the return to the dog days of summer is going to be rough. That also includes some west coast trips sandwiched into divisional play as well.

Next: Five keys to the regular season part three

Then come the last six games of the season against the Brewers and Cubs. Last season’s playoff race came down to the last two weeks of the season against the same opponents. If the Cardinals want to avoid heartbreak last week of the season, the first half becomes that much more important.