Cards face three tough Nats pitchers with much still on the line
ST. LOUIS -- Good for Cardinals manager Mike Matheny for saying, "We're going to push right up to the end."
To let up after clinching a wild card Sunday would be understandable given how banged up are the Cardinals. Matt Holliday (back), Edward Mujica (shoulder, mindset), Matt Adams (elbow), Yadier Molina (knee) and Carlos Beltran (age) are among those who could benefit from some downtime.
While Matheny won't play these guys when they're not fit, sticking with his A-team this week is the way to go. The Cardinals still have plenty to play for in their final homestand of the season, including:
NL Central title
Even after Sunday night's sloppy loss, the Cardinals remain in the driver's seat. With a two-game lead over the Reds and Pirates, the Cardinals' magic number to win the Central outright is down to five.
Reducing that number against the Nationals could be tougher than you think. While the Nationals have all but conceded their playoff chances are finished, you can be certain they would rather not see another Cardinals celebration at their expense.
Of more significance, the Nationals will send out three dangerous starters at Busch Stadium: Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman. All three pose different challenges.
Roark, a rookie who has allowed a total of two runs in his first three starts, has never faced the Cardinals. By now, you know the Cardinals have had trouble against pitchers they're seeing for the first time. For the Cardinals' sake, Roark is not a left-hander.
Gio Gonzalez is a lefty, and a very good one. He is pitching as well as he has all season, too. Gonzalez has gone 4-1 in his past five starts while giving up 0, 1, 0, 4 and 2 earned runs.
Zimmerman has been even better. He has won five of his past six starts and not allowed more than three earned runs in any. He pitched a two-hit, one-walk shutout against the Marlins on Friday night. And, oh yeah, he will be trying to become a 20-game winner for the first time.
If the Cardinals win the division and maintain their one-game lead over the NL West-champion Dodgers, they would be assured of having home-field advantage at least in the Division Series.
Adam Wainwright (2.57 ERA), Lance Lynn (3.00) and, most notably, Shelby Miller (1.77) all have pitched better this season at Busch Stadium.
In the race for the NL's best record, the Braves will be difficult to catch in a week. They own a 1 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals in the standings and, because Atlanta won the season series 4-3, hold the tiebreaker edge if the teams finish with the same record.
While Holliday insists he doesn't look at individual numbers, you can be sure he knows his batting average is up to .298. After hitting .295 and .296 in his first two full seasons with St. Louis, you can also be sure he would like to finish at .300. At .297, Beltran also has a chance to end up at .300 for the fifth time in his career.
While Matt Carpenter seems to be breaking some kind of Cardinals record for doubles every game, he remains 10 doubles shy of the all-time franchise mark, set in 1936 by Joe Medwick with 64.
Catching Medwick is a long shot for the hot-hitting Carpenter, but with a majors-leading 196 hits, he is well within reach of the 200-hit milestone. Winning the NL batting title remains a long-shot possibility, too. Carpenter is hitting .324, 10 points less than leader Michael Cuddyer. After sitting for three games, the Rockies' right fielder returned Sunday and went 3 for 5 against the Diamondbacks.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.