Cards riding high after completing most grueling stretch of season
ST. LOUIS -- Key injuries, extra innings and some tough competition couldn't stop the Cardinals from thriving during their most grueling stretch of the season.
St. Louis will happily take only its second off day in 37 days Thursday after sweeping Arizona to post a 23-13 record during the stretch that began April 21. Mike Matheny said Monday he couldn't remember many runs tougher than what the Cardinals have endured while stretching their lead in the NL Central from one game to five and a half over the Chicago Cubs.
"I haven't heard a lot of griping, moaning and complaining, but you can tell it's taken a toll, and that off day on Thursday certainly has a finish-line feel to it because the guys have just been pushing hard," Matheny said. "The schedule is pretty unique, the way the games have been played on top of the off days.
"But also the caliber of the games against the competition we've had. Match that with all the extra-inning games, the close matches, and it's just been a great trial for us."
St. Louis is the only team in baseball to have played seven games beyond the ninth inning during that stretch, and 14 games have been decided by one run. That means plenty of high stress work for the bullpen, especially when the starters struggled to pitch deep into games.
A season-ending injury to Adam Wainwright also didn't help, as the Cardinals struggled to find a reliable arm every fifth day. They may have finally found an answer if Jaime Garcia can stay healthy, since he's given up three earned runs or fewer in six-plus innings in two consecutive starts, including the first win for a pitcher in Wainwright's spot in the rotation on Monday.
The bullpen absorbed a significant blow of its own when dominant setup man Jordan Walden went to the disabled list due to a shoulder injury retroactive to April 30. Miguel Socolovich posted a 1.17 ERA in seven appearances before St. Louis sent him back to Triple A Memphis on Thursday in anticipation of Jon Jay's return this weekend, and Mitch Harris hasn't allowed a run in nine of 12 appearances since getting called up.
St. Louis never had all five of its Opening Day outfielders on the active roster during its busy schedule, thanks to Randal Grichuk's back injury and more wrist problems for Jay. But Grichuk returned better than ever to fill in for the Cardinals' starting center fielder with significant power at the plate and played some spectacular defense at all three outfield positions.
"I've been singing the praises of Randal Grichuk since I first saw him," Matheny said prior to Wednesday's game, when the 23-year-old went 2 for 4 with a double to raise his slugging percentage to .742 over the last nine games. "There's things that he does that you just can't teach."
The 36-game stretch featured a high degree of difficulty, with 23 games against teams that currently sport winning records. That included series with division leaders Kansas City and Washington, which leads the NL East in part because the Cardinals split four games with the Mets to knock them down to second place last week.
The competition won't get any easier in the coming weeks, particularly with seven of the next 10 games against the NL West-leading Dodgers. But at least the Cardinals won't have to play for more than 13 days in a row until they play 16 games in 16 days to end September.
Matheny said his players would likely take advantage of their time to relax on Thursday, although they might drop by briefly to join him for a different kind of full schedule in support of The Catch 22 Foundation.
"After I have a sporting clayshoot in the morning, (there's a charity) golf tournament and then a concert with my friend Joe Nichols, who's going to perform at our foundation," Matheny said. "So we've got a good, long day."
This one should be considerably less stressful.
You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter at @FS_LukeT or email him at email@example.com.