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MLB

Oh Christ, It’s Getting Late And The Cardinals Are Hot Once Again

Tyler O'Neill rounds the bases after hitting a home run
Joe Puetz/Getty Images

Atlanta Braves relief pitcher A.J. Minter did the hardest part of his job just fine. Coming into Sunday night’s game in the bottom of the eighth inning, he surrendered a Tommy Edman lead-off home run to tie the score at 3-3, then walked the next St. Louis Cardinals hitter and saw the third reach base when his bunt frazzled third baseman Austin Riley. That stuck the experienced lefty in a tight jam—first and second, nobody out, and possibly the top two candidates for NL MVP, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, up in the next two spots.

Minter was allowed to try and clean up the mess himself, and at first he did so perfectly. In an epic battle with Goldschmidt that saw a full count and then two fouls, he snuck strike three through the back door to get the big man for the first out of the inning. Arenado, too, even as he’s crushed the ball for an OPS of 1.149 in the month of August, couldn’t produce the home-team heroics. He swung and missed at three out of five pitches to severely stifle the threat the Cardinals posed to the tie.

However, even though Minter’s cutter/fastball combination on the outer third of zone worked on a terrifying pair of world-class hitters, it got stale when Tyler O’Neill stepped up to the plate. If this were last season, O’Neill might have been the third in the string of awesome sluggers that the Cardinals could stick together in the order, as he, Goldschmidt, and Arenado were the three Cards who topped 30 dingers in 2021. But the regression bug has bitten the Canadian son of a body builder hard this season, as O’Neill had seen just nine leave the yard and was batting only .227 when he came to the ballpark on Sunday. And though he was technically the hero in Saturday’s walk-off St. Louis win, all he had to do there was watch as a wild Kenley Jansen threw him four balls with the bases loaded.

But when Minter once again tried to slide a strike into the far upper corner, O’Neill just ate it up. Dead center, 423 feet, and 3 RBI that gave the Cardinals the 6-3 win over the defending champs.

Yep, it’s that time of year again. All through the last decade and beyond, the Cardinals have made a habit of barreling into the postseason with a monster final stretch after staying relatively under the radar for much of the year. When they won the World Series in 2011, an 18-8 September got them to 90 wins overall. That same month in 2013, when they eventually won the pennant, the Cards were 19-8. After some years on the outside, a 50-30 run to end the season got them back into the playoffs in 2019. And even last year, before they almost unseated the Dodgers in the wild card game, St. Louis demolished their September opponents to the tune of a ridiculous 22-7 win-loss.

It’s not quite September yet, but the same principle appears to apply here. For most of the season, the NL Central battle between the Cards and Brewers took a back seat to the more impressive division leaders in the other two thirds of the National League—even today St. Louis’s 74 wins can’t measure up to the Dodgers’ and Mets’ 88 and 82, respectively. But after sticking close to .500 for much of the year, the Cardinals have once again remembered to get hot as the important games start to draw near. Coming into this series against Atlanta, St. Louis had won 10 of their last 12, and after their latest victories, they’ve taken an absurd 23 of their last 30 to go six games up on the Brewers. With an extremely easy schedule welcoming them in the final month—eight games against the Reds! Nine games against the Pirates!—that postseason spot is pretty much locked up.

Though it’s still fairly top-heavy, this roster is starting to shape into the kind of gang you would hate to meet in a short series. Goldschmidt and Arenado have continued to lead the team like they have all year, but the Cards are also enjoying the emergence of young Lars Nootbaar as a top-notch hitter, the resurrection of Albert Pujols as, at least, a devourer of left-handed pitching, and the trade deadline arrival of starter Jordan Montgomery, who up until his last appearance was almost completely untouchable. Crucially, though, you also don’t play over .700 ball in a month without some late dramatics like the ones from this weekend, which not only count in the standings but give the team a morale boost for the following games.

“For a little while, we had this thing where we fell behind (and) it felt like, ‘Oh, shoot, we’re going to lose,'” Sunday’s starter Adam Wainwright said after the win. “And we needed to kick that in the butt. I think we all had to look at ourselves in the mirror and realize we’re a good team.”

The Cardinals might not love that it always seems to happen this way—what major leaguer would prefer to play half a great regular season instead of a whole one? But if you’re going to pick just one part of the year to look like the best team in the world, it’s always best to pick the part closest to the playoffs.