MILWAUKEE – The Cardinals played their best baseball late last season, winning a franchise-record 17 consecutive games at one point that propelled them into the playoffs. However, they did not win the NL Central and were subjected to the fragilities of a one-and-done Wild Card Game that abruptly ended their run.
That usually taut, one-game format was done away with following MLB’s expansion of the playoffs, but that did little to change some of the Cards’ primary goals. They want to surpass the rival Brewers, win the division and avoid a first-round series against a Wild Card team under the new best-of-three format in the first round of the playoffs.
St. Louis missed another chance to take a monumental step towards those goals when it lost, 6-4, to the Brewers in another forgettable series finale. Three times this season, the Cardinals have gone into the last game against the Brewers with a 2-1 edge only to fall flat each time. Those struggles have allowed Milwaukee three series splits.
“It’s definitely frustrating because obviously, you want to win every single one of those [series], ”Said Cardinals right fielder Lars Nootbaar, who homered and threw out Andrew McCutchen at the plate in the fourth inning. “When you get a lead in a series, you want to try and keep it there, but it’s never going to be easy with these guys, and it will likely go down to the wire with them. They’re always going to be fighting back – like we are. So, it’s frustrating, but if we can go 2-2 on the road and dominate at home, we’ll be OK. ”
The Cardinals (12-4) and the Brewers (13-2) have beaten up on the rebuilding Reds and Pirates but have failed to gain much traction against the rest of the league. Their 6-6 record against one another also prompted St. Louis manager Oliver Marmol to point to the high level of baseball being played.
“I’d like to play [the Brewers] every day. Honestly, I’d love to play them 100-whatever times, “Marmol said. “That’s a good team over there. I like the way the rosters match up. They’re a good team over there, they’re managed well, and they have good pieces. ”
The Cards could have put some distance between themselves and the Brewers had they been able to close out the two series with victories. In both series in Milwaukee, St. Louis lost the opener, won the next two games and then stumbled into the finale with Dakota Hudson laboring through extended innings and reliever Drew VerHagen allowing late runs.
On Thursday, Hudson needed 88 pitches to get through 4 1/3 innings. In addition to walking three, Hudson scattered seven hits and five runs – four on home runs by Tyrone Taylor and Willy Adames.
“It really wasn’t all that bad until I gave up a couple of poorly timed homers,” Hudson said. “It was one pitch; I’m one ground ball from getting out of [a three-run fourth inning], but that is just a part of it. If you’re going to get out of it, you’ve got to do it. ”
It hasn’t been just finishing against the Brewers that has been a problem for the Cardinals. Finishing – especially in series where they were either tied or ahead – has been an issue of late. Not only is St. Louis 9-14 in series finales this season, it has also dropped the past five finales, against the Rays, Reds, Pirates, Red Sox and Brewers.
Those defeats have kept the Cards from gaining much ground on a hobbled Brewers squad that has been without Brandon Woodruff, Aaron Ashby, Freddy Peralta and even closer Josh Hader for long stretches.
“It’s frustrating because we’re right there, and we’ve got to close the door,” said Hudson, who dropped to 5-4 on the season.
The season series – and the NL Central crown – could very well come down to the games left against Milwaukee. Marmol, for one, is just fine with that. He feels like his squad has the personnel to emerge as division champs.
“We ran into a really good arm the first day here in Corbin [Burnes]. Our goal was to win every game here, ”Marmol said. “[Winning the division] is obviously the goal. We want to put ourselves in that position, and we’ve got the guys to do it. “