As the Major League Baseball playoff picture stands in mid-August, the St. Louis Cardinals find themselves on the outside looking in. And on the schedule looms a stretch of games that could make or break their entire season. But no, this is not a recap from 2011—largely because, as general as those statements are, they are pretty much where the similarities to the 2012 season end.

Some of the differences are positive and some are negative, but all are real factors that will affect this year’s Cardinals going forward. Obviously, the number of playoff opportunities this season is greater, and the Cards are closer to them than the famed 10.5 games of 2011. The 2012 Cardinals have a more settled bullpen situation in terms of roles, but they are still prone to a lapse when it comes to execution. This year’s rotation
got its makeover from within the system, and may yet receive a boost from the return of Jaime Garcia. Out in the field, defense up the middle has not been the team’s Achilles Heel—health has (and probably will continue to be). Consequently, bench depth once again seems to be a problem. Allen Craig is a guy who should be an everyday player, and because of Lance Berkman’s knee issues he has been. But if Allen Craig is coming off the bench, that’s a sign of deep, complete team. The Cardinals do not have that. And the offense teeters between being the best in the league (as they are on paper) to scoring 10 runs over a five game stretch (as they did Tuesday-Saturday of last week).

But the Cardinals are in a position to turn things around, and as far as the schedule goes, their best chance starts Tuesday at Busch Stadium. Over the next three weeks, the Cards will play both the best and worst the National League has to offer. They will play the chasing and the chased. They get to experience the comforts of home, and they have to venture into the most hostile of territories. Pay close attention, because whether or not the St. Louis Cardinals play beyond October 3 of this year, these next series are very likely to mark the turning point—for good or ill:

Arizona Diamondbacks (3 games) – The D-Backs were somewhat of a surprise last season, and they are hanging on by a thread in both the NL West and Wild Card races. But a good showing at Busch this week would put them right back into the conversation for a postseason spot. Much has changed for both teams since the Cards swept the Diamondbacks in Phoenix at the beginning of May. But the Cards should be able to pull out a series win, especially with Kyle Lohse slated to pitch the third game on Thursday.

Pittsburgh Pirates (6 games) – Three in St. Louis this weekend followed by three in Pittsburgh near the end of the month—those are the final regular season head-to-head meetings between the Pirates and the Cardinals. So far, they’ve played each other pretty tightly with the Cards winning five of the first nine. But pitching will likely rule these next six: the Cardinals have to expose the weaknesses in the Pirates’ lineup while finding a way to break through against their considerable pitching staff. Winning four or five of these games could mean the difference between making the playoffs and waiting until next year…for either team.

Houston Astros (3 games) – The doormats of the National League come to town next week to finish off a nine game home stand for the Redbirds. Seriously, anything less than a sweep by the Cardinals has to be a bit of a failure at this point. The Astros would do well if they end up losing less than 110 games this year, so the Cards should have little trouble padding the win column against them. Let’s hope they manage to miss Bud Norris’ turn in the rotation.

Cincinnati Reds (3 games) – The Cards make their final regular season visit to Great American Ballpark later this month. Who knows what the standings will look like by then, but there really is no bad time to go into Cincinnati and kick ass. The Reds may have Joey Votto back by then, too, so the rich will be getting richer. The two rivals meet one more time this year, in a series at Busch that closes out the season. But by then, nothing may be left to decide—though the opposite would make for awesome theater. Realistically, this is the Cards’ last shot to do some head-on damage to the Reds’ NL Central Championship aspirations.

Washington Nationals (3 games) – The only NL team the Cardinals have yet to play is currently the team with the best record in the Majors. The Cards wrap up this stretch in Washington over Labor Day Weekend, and it’s hard to predict which Nationals team they’ll see. Among NL offensive leaders, the Nats are in the Top 5 in hits, doubles, and home runs but they also have the second most strikeouts. And their pitching staff has just been nails—but will they really shut down Stephen Strasburg if he hits a certain number of innings? Regardless, the Nationals will be a formidable opponent, and the Cardinals have to face them in six of their final 31 games.

This is the stretch where the Cards make their statement. If it’s not a good one, their chances of getting to defend their title become real small real quick.

Chris Reed is a freelance writer who also appears on
I-70 Baseball Saturdays and Bird Brained whenever he feels like it. Follow him on Twitter @birdbrained.

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