On Wednesday, Aug. 7, the Cardinals lost in a pretty spectacular ninth-inning meltdown. A wild pitch with two outs in the ninth moved baserunners to second and third with the Cardinals holding a tenuous 1-0 lead. Russell Martin would single, scoring both and giving the Dodgers a walkoff win. The Cardinals fell to 58-55. They held a one-game lead in the NL Central when they left for their road trip, went 0-5 on said road trip and headed home trailing the Cubs by 3 1/2 games.
It felt like things were off the rails. In looking at the roster, it seemed like more than half of the players were underachieving. They had fallen to third place.
Since then, everything has been clicking for the birds on the bat. The Cardinals have played 16 games since then. They've won 13. They now lead the NL Central by 2 1/2 games and SportsLine gives them a 62.7 percent chance to win it for the first time since 2015.
How are they doing it?
In these last 16 games, the Cardinals are hitting .274 with a .361 on-base percentage. They are averaging 5.9 runs per game. They don't roll over, but instead keep punching. Thursday night, for example, they trailed the Rockies 2-0. In the bottom of the fourth, Marcell Ozuna hit a two-run homer to tie it. The Rockies countered with a three-run homer. Paul DeJong would hit a two-run shot in the sixth and then, in the bottom of the seventh, Dexter Fowler clubbed a go-ahead, two-run homer. The bullpen would hold the game.
- Paul Goldschmidt was hitting .248/.325/.424 through July 21. Since then, he's slashing .303/.338/.623 with 11 homers in 31 games.
- Since May 30, Kolten Wong is hitting .317 with a .386 OBP and should remain in the two-hole.
- During this 16-game stretch, Ozuna is hitting .357/.446/.625.
- In his last 19 games, Fowler has a .397 OBP and is slugging .516 with 18 RBI.
- It's only been six games, but since being recalled from the minors, Harrison Bader has a .478 OBP and .563 slugging. He's walked seven times compared to four strikeouts.
A true ace?
If you quickly glance at the Cardinals' rotation, no one jumps out as being ace-caliber, other than maybe realizing Adam Wainwright used to be one or a surface-level look at Dakota Hudson's 13 wins.
Look at Jack Flaherty right now, though. The 23-year-old righty is really coming into his own and has been dominant all month. In five starts, he's allowed only one run in 32 innings (0.28 ERA). He's struck out 40 with a 0.69 WHIP. We could go back even further. In his last nine starts, Flaherty has a 0.80 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 56 1/3 innings. He's held opposing hitters to a .144/.221/.222 line in that time. Basically, since early July, Flaherty has made every opposing hitter look like a pitcher at the plate.
Let's not gloss over Hudson, either. He's thrown 18 2/3 scoreless innings in his last three starts.
Bullpen has settled
There was a time when the bullpen was worrisome. In August, however, the Cardinals' bullpen has a 2.97 ERA. During this 16-game hot streak, the bullpen has only allowed 18 percent of its inherited runners to score. They have six saves and only one blown save with five bullpen wins.
- Since that Dodgers disaster, Carlos Martinez has safely closed down all four of his save chances.
- John Brebbia has only given up runs one time in his last 10 outings (1.32 ERA in 13 2/3 innings).
- During the hot stretch, Andrew Miller has only given up one run in seven outings (six innings) for a 1.50 ERA.
The caveat here is the Cardinals in this 16-game stretch have gone 9-0 against the Pirates, Royals and Rockies. They split a four-game series against the Reds and took two of three from the Brewers, who have been a sub-.500 team since their 7-1 start, haven't had a winning month since May and are 29-36 on the road (the series was in St. Louis).
Regardless, all a team can do is play its schedule and every team in the Central plays a similar slate. The Cardinals were due these relatively easy ones and they took full advantage by finally playing to their capability.
They'll be tested. They have six games left against the Brewers, three against the Nationals that could matter and seven of their final 10 games come against the Cubs. The way things are headed, though, the Cardinals are the team to beat in the NL Central. Back on Aug. 7, we certainly wouldn't have thought we'd be saying as much before the end of the month.