Cardinals enter final stretch in prime position to capture NL Central title

Yadier Molina and the Cardinals are trying to make the postseason for a franchise-record fourth consecutive season. 

Tom Gannam/AP

ST. LOUIS — It was on the next-to-last Sunday of the 2013 season when the Cardinals clinched a spot in the playoffs.

Despite all the ups and downs of 2014, they enter the next-to-last weekend in position to clinch a spot in the playoffs even sooner.

With their magic number to secure a wild card down to four, the Cardinals could secure a postseason berth as soon as Saturday night.

For that to happen, the Cardinals need to beat the Reds on Friday and Saturday and the Brewers would have to lose twice to the Pirates. After the disappointment suffered by the Brewers the past two nights at Busch Stadium, few would be surprised if they are ready to say wait ’til next year.

Their past two losses were painful enough just by how they lost. Mike Fiers no-hit the Cardinals until the sixth inning Wednesday, then gave up the game’s only two runs in the seventh, the first scoring on an error by center fielder Carlos Gomez. On Thursday, a mental lapse by first baseman Mark Reynolds allowed the Cardinals to extend the eighth inning when they mounted a two-run rally to tie the game. The Brewers put runners in scoring position in the 10th, 11th and 12th innings but failed to score and ended up losing, 3-2, in 13 innings.

As a result, the Cardinals’ magic number dropped from eight going into Wednesday’s game to four after Thursday’s victory. The Brewers fell to six games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central and 3 1/2 behind the Pirates for the second wild card. Not even a sweep of three games in Pittsburgh would allow the Brewers to catch the Pirates, though such a showing would keep their chances alive going into the final week.

The Cardinals really can’t lose when they’re watching the Pirates-Brewers scoreboard this weekend. If the Pirates win, the Cardinals get closer to a wild card. If the Brewers win, the Cardinals get closer to clinching the Central. Their magic number to secure the division is eight.

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In 2013, the Cardinals actually clinched their wild-card spot when they weren’t playing. A loss by the Nationals on Sunday afternoon put the Cardinals in the playoffs before they played that night. St. Louis then went out and made three errors in a 6-4 loss at Milwaukee and did not bother with a celebration. Matt Holliday told reporters, "We would rather celebrate something more than a one-game possibility. Everybody’s got their mind set on winning the division and celebrating that."

Though Mike Matheny hasn’t said whether this club would celebrate after clinching a wild card, it would be more than a little surprising if they did. Like last year, the Cardinals enter the season’s final 10 days in prime position to win the division. Like last year, that remains the goal.

Whenever the Cardinals clinch, they will enter the franchise record book. It will mark the first time in club history the Cardinals have made the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. 

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