After taking command of Central, Cardinals are poised to rule NL, too

Yadier Molina and the Cardinals have celebrated a lot of wins lately, and they appear quite capable of rising to the top of the NL.

Jeff Curry/Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Cardinals have put a stranglehold on the NL Central, they can focus on the next step: Gaining home-field advantage in the NL playoffs.

As silly as it might seem to say that about a team still searching for its groove just 10 days ago, the Cardinals are primed to finish with the NL’s best record for a second straight season. After winning three of four games in Milwaukee over the weekend, the Cardinals are at 79-64 and enter a four-game series at Cincinnati trailing both the Nationals (80-61) and Dodgers (81-62) by two games. Just 10 days ago, however, they were six behind the Nationals and four behind the Dodgers.

While Washington and LA are playing well, both teams enter the final 20 days with more concerns than St. Louis. A veteran scout who has seen all three clubs in recent weeks said this morning he would favor the Cardinals at this point.

While the Nationals’ rotation and lineup are at least equal to the Cardinals, the Washington bullpen has become a concern. Manager Matt Williams just removed Rafael Soriano from the closer’s role after he muffed back-to-back save chances last week — his sixth and seventh blown saves of the season. Williams told reporters he now will try a closer-by-committee approach, not the ideal situation for a rookie manager in a pennant race.

The Nationals figure to go as far as their ace, Stephen Strasburg, can lead them. His stuff continues to wow, but his results have been mostly mediocre. He leads the NL with 215 strikeouts in 189 innings, but his 3.43 ERA ranks 19th and he has allowed 22 homers — more than Adam Wainwright (10) and Lance Lynn (8) combined.

Strasburg also is pitching in a pennant race for the first time as the shutdown of 2012 continues to put a cloud over the Nationals. "He’s an unknown going down the stretch because he hasn’t been in this position before," the scout said.

As Strasburg heads into the most important month – or two — of his career, he could step up and pitch his team to the World Series. Or he could show the effects of already surpassing his career high in innings and not be able to hold his own against the likes of Clayton Kershaw or Adam Wainwright.

Speaking of Kershaw, the way he continues to dominate gives the Dodgers a decided edge over any team in the NL on days he pitches. It’s almost to the point where you can put the Dodgers down to go 4-0 in his four remaining starts.

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Though the Dodgers have lost Josh Beckett, otherwise they are as healthy as they’ve been all season. They are getting plenty of production from Adrian Gonzalez, Dee Gordon and Matt Kemp, but the tempestuous one, Yasiel Puig, has been unable to escape the longest slump of his young career. He enters the week in a 4-for-41 skid and is hitting just .207 with four RBI since the end of July.

The Dodgers’ bigger issue, however, is the team chasing them in the NL West. They lead the Giants by three games with two series still to come between the teams. The Giants have won nine out of their past 12 and rival the Cardinals as the NL’s hottest team. San Francisco has won seven of 13 meetings with LA so far.

Other than the Giants, the Dodgers do not play another team with a winning record the rest of the way, although they have four games at Wrigley Field against a Cubs team that proved to be no pushover against the Cardinals.

The Nationals’ schedule includes six games against the second-place Braves, who have won nine of the first 13 meetings. Atlanta has struggled big time on offense lately but remains in wild-card contention. The Nationals also have eight games left against the Marlins, who continue to hang around the wild-card race, and seven against the Mets, a team Washington has owned this season with 10 wins in 12 games.

Of the Cardinals’ remaining 19 games, only three will be played against a team with a winning record, and that’s the Brewers. As anyone who watched the proceedings at Miller Park over the weekend knows, Milwaukee does not look much like a winning team these days.

The Cardinals have arrived in September playing their best baseball of the season. Yadier Molina’s return has been huge, and the best part about that for the Cardinals is that sitting out 40 games has left him refreshed for the stretch. Michael Wacha was touching 97 mph in his first start in more than two months last week and should get up to about 75 pitches when he faces the Reds on Tuesday night. With Wainwright returning to form on Sunday and Lance Lynn in the best stretch of his career, the Cardinals’ rotation again looks like a major strength.

Also, the Cardinals have gotten a boost from Peter Bourjos and Oscar Taveras and finally are showing the kind of offense that was expected by many all season.

"In the beginning, we didn’t put it together, but now everybody is doing what they need to do," shortstop Jhonny Peralta said after Sunday’s 9-1 victory over the Brewers. "Both pitching and hitting are doing a really good job. When you mix everything like that, you win a lot of games. That’s what we’re doing right now."

The Cardinals entered a similar situation last September when they battled the Dodgers, Braves and Pirates for the league’s best record. St. Louis trailed by two games with two weeks left last year but won its final six games to clinch the top seed on the final day of the regular season.

This time, they have three weeks to make up two games on the Nationals and three games on the Dodgers (who own the tiebreaker because they won the regular-season series, 4-3). As convincingly as the Cardinals have taken control of the Central, don’t be surprised if they move into the driver’s seat in the NL as well.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.