Why the NL Central is now the Cardinals’ to lose

ST. LOUIS — Rarely does a team achieve as much as did the Cardinals in their impressive sweep of the Pirates over the weekend.

Their accomplishments included:

* Wrapping up the division title. Not kidding. The NL Central is theirs to lose. The Cardinals have grabbed a 1-game lead over the Pirates and a 2-game lead over the Reds and they play a far more favorable schedule. Of the Cardinals’ final 19 games, 13 will be played at Busch Stadium. Of their final five opponents, only one — the Nationals — has a winning record.

The Reds and Pirates, meanwhile, still have home-and-home series against each other, including three to finish the season at Cincinnati. Pittsburgh is facing a particularly difficult time because it is just four games into a stretch of 20 games without a day off. The Pirates’ bullpen looked somewhat worn out in St. Louis and their offense was sputtering before it arrived at Busch. Three games at steamy Texas this week won’t likely help, either.

* Putting themselves in position for the NL’s top seed. A week ago, the Cardinals trailed the Braves by six games and the Dodgers by four in the race for the NL’s best record. Now those deficits are down to three games and one game, respectively, as both the Braves and Dodgers ended four-game skids Monday.

Gaining home-field advantage through the NL Championship Series would be big not only because the Cardinals play better at Busch. Every contender owns a better record at home.

If the Cardinals own home-field advantage, it means the Braves would not if the two met in the postseason. And that is key. At Turner Field, the Braves are a majors-best 31 games over .500. Away from home, they’re two games under .500.   

* Righting the rotation. Thank you, Adam Wainwright, although we weren’t worried. Well, maybe a little.

Thank you more, Michael Wacha. If the rookie right-hander keeps pitching like this, the Cardinals can enter the postseason feeling a lot better about their starting pitching. A rotation of Wainwright, Joe Kelly, Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller exudes more confidence at this point than Wainwright, Kelly, Miller and Lance Lynn.

But even if Wacha continues to pitch as he has in putting together a 19 2/3-innings scoreless streak, he isn’t assured of a postseason start ahead of Miller or Lynn. But by continuing to pitch well, Wacha will ensure the team’s brain trust of having to make a very difficult decision.

* Lengthening the lineup.

OK, 4 for 8 isn’t much of a sample size, but if you’re Pete Kozma, you’ll take it. Kozma, remember, went 3 for 48 in August. A solid weekend isn’t about to stop the Cardinals from seeking a shortstop upgrade in the off-season, but Kozma has shown enough to keep from being buried on the bench (beside Ryan Jackson, who showed nothing in his one audition at shortstop).

Maybe David Freese can smell October. Or maybe losing his everyday job at third base fired him up. Either way, he is starting to hit with more authority. Last week, for the first time this season, Freese hit two homers in a week. He is hitting .316 in September and seems to have played his way back into a regular role.

If Freese and Kozma can produce in the bottom half of the order, the Cardinals’ league-leading offense becomes even more dangerous.

Not everyone in the lineup is likely to be hot at the same time but, as the Cardinals proved last weekend, the more players who are hitting, the better the team’s chances of continued accomplishments.

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