ST. LOUIS — Acknowledging a growing deficit in the standings, the defending World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals know they can control the outcome of a Cincinnati Reds game just six more times the rest of the season.
So instead they plan on trying to focus on themselves.
With the division-leading Reds off to an unthinkable 18-3 record since the All-Star break and now holders of an eight-game lead over them in the National League Central, the Cardinals know it won’t matter what other teams do if they can’t start stringing wins together themselves.
And they did just that Friday, defeating the Milwaukee Brewers 9-3 at Busch Stadium behind three hits from Yadier Molina and two hits each from Allen Craig, Matt Holliday and Dan Descalso.
“You can’t be oblivious and say that you don’t notice it at all but you truly try to,” said manager Mike Matheny. “In here we control what we do and we have to play better, that’s all there is to it. These guys know that. It’s not a secret, but it’s not a secret what the other teams are doing either.”
The Cardinals opened play following the All-Star break with just a 2.5 game deficit to make up in the standings. But they were swept in Cincinnati and lost 2-of-3 in Milwaukee, going 1-5 on a road trip where they could have easily gone 5-1.
After a 6-1 home stand and a series opening win in Chicago appeared to have the Cardinals going in the right direction, they lost a pair of winnable games at Wrigley Field to finish the weekend and lost Thursday night in Colorado to end with a 3-3 road trip against two of the worst teams in all of baseball.
Friday was the Cardinals’ 10th win in their past 14 games as they look to get back in the playoff picture, whether it be the division or the Wild Card. They picked up a game on the Pittsburgh Pirates — who lost 3-0 to the Reds Friday — to move within 3.5 games of the second Wild Card spot in the National League.
But with the Wild Card seemingly much more attainable at this point, the Cardinals don’t appear to be turning their attention towards one or the other just yet. They are focusing on themselves.
“We just play the game and play it hard and play it right, that stuff takes care of itself in the end,” Matheny said. “Do we aim to win this division? Absolutely. Do we start listening to the numbers and what everybody tells us we can’t do, absolutely I hope not.
“We have to stay away from that thought, stay away from letting that creep in because that would be something that would be the exact opposite of what happened last year. The guys just kept believing in themselves and kept playing the game. That stuff works itself out.”
The Cardinals made one of the most historic comebacks in baseball history last fall, overcoming a 10.5 game deficit in the Wild Card race in the final six weeks of the season to stun the Atlanta Braves and reach the postseason.
But they can’t count on history to repeat itself twice. The Cardinals are in a better position in the standings and have three more weeks to play with at this point. And they know it’s time to start making their move.
“What happened last year, for that to happen two years in a row is a tough gig,” said third baseman David Freese. “I’m not looking at the Wild Card but it’s pretty cool that an extra team can get in there. The way Cincinnati is playing, they have a good team over there and they are hot. You have two chances. You can win your division or the Wild Card.”
The Cardinals actually lost ground in the standings during their 6-1 home stand two weeks ago because it came while the Reds were in the midst of a 10-game winning streak. The Cardinals haven’t won on a day the Reds lost since July 16.
And while seeing Cincinnati win on a near nightly basis could be deflating, the Cardinals instead have tried to focus on their own success.
“It’s demoralizing if you allow it to be,” Matheny said. “You can sit there and focus on what they are doing and really not do anything to help yourself move forward. Regardless of what the standings are or regardless of not gaining any ground, you should be moving forward, and as long as they’re not buying into that garbage, we’re going to continue to take advantage of every positive game we have and hopefully stack them together.”
Said Freese on the Reds’ success: “I think we’re used to it by now. They are just winning ballgames. We just have to worry about ourselves. We have to win. Bottom line.”
The Cardinals began a stretch Friday in which 16 of their next 19 games are at home. And after a convincing win in the series opener against Milwaukee, the Cardinals know they need to continue to do more of the same. And fast.