Path to the playoffs remains wide open for the St. Louis Cardinals

ST. LOUIS, MO - JULY 24: Yadier Molina #4 and Jack Flaherty #22 of the St. Louis Cardinals walk toward the dugout prior to the Opening Day game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium on July 24, 2020 in St. Louis, Missouri. The 2020 season had been postponed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - JULY 24: Yadier Molina #4 and Jack Flaherty #22 of the St. Louis Cardinals walk toward the dugout prior to the Opening Day game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium on July 24, 2020 in St. Louis, Missouri. The 2020 season had been postponed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images) /
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The St. Louis Cardinals have 16 games left in the regular season. Are they on track with our preseason projection to make the playoffs?

Back before the season started, I took a shot at breaking the St. Louis Cardinals path towards a playoff spot. Little did I know the schedule would be flipped on its head, or that the Cardinals would be closing the season with no off days and multiple seven-inning double-headers. That being said, I thought it might be fun to look back to compare the projections to where the Cardinals are now as we approach the home stretch.

As of today, the Cardinals sit at 21-22. They have the seventh-best record in the National League, and a half-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds for second in the Central Division. If the playoffs started today, the Cardinals would be the six seed. The division-leading Chicago Cubs are more than four games ahead of the Cardinals, so a division title is starting to slip out of reach.

Obviously those numbers should all be taken with a grain of salt, as the Cardinals have played fewer games than any other team in baseball. The optimists among us (which there seems to be very few) look at the team’s record and say, “Wow, we’re at .500? Great! We have a shot!” The negative (and more common) Cardinal fan seems to be extremely disappointed in the Cardinals season and is just waiting for the immense number of innings left on the schedule to result in a messy collapse out of the playoff race.

It’s hard to be positive after the terrible blowout loss Monday night, but the optimists might have a more accurate picture. If you look back at our original schedule breakdown, I had the Cardinals at 22-19 after their first 41 games. Going into their last nineteen, the schedule looked like it would get easier, and a conservative projection of finishing the year 11-8 would result in a 33-27 overall record– easily good for a playoff spot.

Now, the Cardinals are only scheduled to play 15 more games, for a season total of 58. Instead of going 11-8 against the Twins, Reds, Brewers, Pirates, and Royals to get to 32 wins, a 30-win season only requires going 9-6 against the Brewers, Pirates, and Royals. Will it be difficult? Most definitely. But the weird schedule has made the opponents down the stretch a little easier.

In July, I also projected win totals against each club the Cardinals would face in 2020. Here’s the original projection:

3-1 vs Tigers, 4-2 vs Royals, 2-1 vs Indians, 2-2 vs Twins, 1-2 vs White Sox

6-4 vs Pirates, 5-5 vs Cubs, 5-5 vs Brewers, 5-5 vs Reds

12-8 (.600) vs AL Central, 21-19 (.525) vs NL Central

Here’s where the Cardinals stand, having completed the season series against all but three teams.

1-1 vs Tigers, 2-1 vs Royals (3 games remaining), 1-2 vs Indians, 1-3 vs Twins, 2-1 vs White Sox

2-3 vs Pirates (5 games remaining), 5-5 vs Cubs, 1-2 vs Brewers (7 games remaining), 6-4 vs Reds

7-8 vs AL Central (3 remaining), 14-13 vs NL Central (12 remaining)

It’s a little eerie how similar my original projected totals are to the current Cardinals record. Going 2-1 vs the Royals, 4-1 vs the Pirates, and 4-3 vs the Brewers would bring the Cardinals to 31-27. Excluding the Twins and Indians, it would mean the Cardinals would have beaten or tied every projection. The Cardinals’ record in interleague play will be almost the same, and taking care of business in Pittsburgh will give the Cardinals a better record in the NL Central.

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Going 10-5 or 9-6 the next two weeks might not shock the world, but it is a realistic goal that will still ensure playoff baseball. The Royals are completely out of the playoff race, so a series win is likely. The Pirates are the worst team in baseball and it’s not particularly close. And although it would be nice to really knock the Brewers out, they are tough competition who always find a way to hang around. It’s a lot of baseball in a short amount of time, but it’s also 15 games against teams in the bottom half of the MLB.

This is how I ended my prediction in July:

"“As a Cardinal fan, I’m reassured by the fact that they don’t have to be perfect to make it to the playoffs. A fast start, weathering the storm through the middle, and a strong closing performance will be the keys to a successful season.”"

Fast start? Check. Weathering the storm through the middle? It turned out to be quite a storm, but check. The last thing on the list is a strong closing performance, and the schedule has lined up quite nicely for that to happen. The 2020 St. Louis Cardinals are an imperfect team, but with strong pitching performances and enough timely hits, their path to the playoffs remains open.

Next. From this point on, the Cardinals control their fate. dark

We’ve heard it a billion times, but this season really is unlike any other. I have a feeling it’ll all come down to the final five games against the Brewers, but hopefully the Cardinals can clinch a spot before that. We might not be at Busch Stadium to see it happen, but there’s nothing better than a pennant race.

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