By Rob Rains
The Cardinals welcomed September with their biggest division lead, six games, going into the final month of the season since they led the NL Central by 10 games in 2009.
Trying to complete the task of winning the division is just one of many reasons why this will be a must-watch month for Cardinals fans.
Here are some of those reasons:
Albert Pujols. Bringing the former Cardinal back home for the final season of his career might have been viewed as a sentimental move when the year began, but not now. Every Pujols at-bat for the rest of the season will bring with it the feel of watching Mark McGwire as he pursued the single-season home run record in 1998.
Going into the month Pujols is just two home runs away from tying Alex Rodriguez with 696 home runs, the fourth highest total in baseball history. He is six home runs away from joining Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth as the only players in history with 700 or more career home runs.
Pujols won’t be in the lineup every day, but he figures to start every time the Cardinals face a lefthander 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 for every nine at-bats. At that pace he would need about 60 at-bats in the final 31 games to get the six home runs that would get him to 700.
Paul Goldschmidt. The prohibitive favorite to become the first Cardinal to win the MVP award since Pujols won it for the third time in 2009, Goldschmidt also is chasing a feat that has not been accomplished in the National League since 1937.
That was the year Joe Medwick won the Triple Crown, and no NL hitter since has led the league in average, home runs and RBIs in the same year. Goldschmidt at least has a chance to do it.
He begins the month with the best average in the league, .332, seven points ahead of Freddie Freeman of the Dodgers. He is tied for the league lead in RBIs with 105 with Pete Alonso of the Mets. The most difficult category for Goldschmidt to win will likely be the home run crown. He begins the month second in the league with 33 homers, just three shy of his career high of 36, and three behind league-leader Kyle Schwarber of the Phillies.
Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina. The duo begin the month with 322 combined starts, two away from tying the major-league record of 324 combined starts by a pitcher and catcher set by the Tigers’ Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan.
If the current rotation stays intact, Wainwright and Molina should tie that record on Sept. 8 at home against Washington, and break that mark on Sept. 13 or 14 against the Brewers at Busch Stadium. Wainwright likely will make five or six more starts in the regular season, but almost certainly won’t be able to reach 200 wins for his career. He begins the month with 193.
Nolan Arenado. He goes into September with 89 RBIs, 11 away from 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 RBIs 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 also will help Arenado’s standing in the MVP vote and perhaps help push Goldschmidt forward in his Triple Crown pursuit.
Jack Flaherty. This has basically been a lost season for Flaherty, who has made more minor-league rehab starts (seven) than he has started games for the Cardinals (three). That could change in September and a good month would help set Flaherty up to be someone the team can count on in their bid for a deep postseason run in October.
Flaherty is set to return to the rotation on Labor Day, Sept. 5, against the Nationals. There will be 28 regular-season games left on the Cardinals schedule at that point, meaning there should be enough time for him to likely make five starts in preparation for the postseason.
The race for second. If the Cardinals need another incentive to keep pushing toward the best record they can achieve, this figures to be it. The two division champions who finish with the best records in the league will get a first-round bye in the new expanded playoff format. The division champion with the third best record will play a wild-card qualifier in the first round, with the best-of-three series all at home.
With a 76-55 record entering 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 trail New York by three games in the NL East.
The Cardinals have no chance of catching the Dodgers, who already have 90 wins.
While those are the main reasons to keep watching the Cardinals in September, and the few extra regular-season games in October, there are a few other players fans should pay attention to, especially with an eye toward how it will affect the team in October:
The lefthanded relievers. After cycling through several options the team enters September with their two least experienced lefthanded choices, Zack Thompson and JoJo Romero, in the bullpen. They also have been the only two who have been successful this season.
The combination of Genesis Cabrera, Packy Naughton, T.J. McFarland and Matthew Liberatore (five innings) allowed 68 earned runs in 110 1/3 innings, an ERA of 5.55. All are currently back in Memphis.
Thompson has allowed only one earned run in 19 innings while Romero, obtained at the trade deadline from the Phillies for Edmundo Sosa, has not allowed a run in five innings, recording six strikeouts. How manager Oli Marmol elects to use them during the final month of the season could be a key to the overall success of the bullpen.
Jordan Hicks. Remember when Hicks began the year as a starter? That didn’t work. Since he moved back to the bullpen, Hicks has held opposing hitters to a .196 average, but the hits have been costly. He has allowed 19 hits in 97 at-bats, but also has given 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 to be the bridge reliever who can get a lead to Ryan Helsley in the ninth inning, but only if he can cut down on the walks and get key outs when the game is on the line in the middle to late innings.
Lars Nootbaar and Brendan Donovan. Nootbaar hit leadoff for the first time on Aug. 11 and Donovan moved into the second spot in the batting order on a regular basis against righthanders on Aug. 17, solidifying both spots in the lineup and giving Goldschmidt and Arenado many more RBI chances.
Nootbaar has a .406 on-base percentage in the top spot, and Donovan has a .420 on-base percentage while hitting second. Combined they have scored 23 runs in 26 games while in the top two spots in the batting order.
The Cardinals have used five other leadoff hitters this season, who had a combined .233 batting average.
Tyler O’Neill. It’s been an injury and slump-filled season for O’Neill, but he has shown recent flashes of power, ending August with seven homers and 20 RBIs for the month.
Having O’Neill come close to finding the stroke he had last September – when he hit 13 homers and drove in 30 runs – would help take some of the pressure off Goldschmidt and Arenado and could go a long way toward erasing the bad memories from the first four months of this season.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports