This time of the year, every series that a team plays is a big series. Unless they're out of contention, every single series, regardless of the opponent, is a huge series. No one series can be singled out as being bigger than any other.
That being said, this is one of the biggest series of the year for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Starting tonight, the Cardinals will play the Milwaukee Brewers, the team the Birds find themselves chasing for the wild card, in a two game series at Busch Stadium.
The standings as we head into this pivotal series put the Brewers 3.5 games ahead of the local nine. It's tough to ever say that a simple two game series is going to bury a team, but if the Cards get swept again, as they did the last time Milwaukee came to town, I think that it's pretty much turn out the lights, the party's over. Five and a half back, this late in the season, is just too many games to reasonably think a team is going to make up. Of course, if it goes the other way, and the Cardinals come out of this series only a game and a half back, then it is, as those of us in the business like to say, "so on." (Thus ends my attempt to speak in vernacular for the day.)
I'd just like to break in for a moment here and voice a slight complaint. I was watching SportsCenter, and they were doing a preview for some of the series this week. John Kruk was on, talking about how big a series this one is for the Cards and Brewers. Unfortunately for Mr. Kruk, he seems to have been under the impression that this is a three-game series, as he claimed that the deficit between the two teams could be anywhere from a half game to 6.5 by the end of the series. Look, I know these guys have a lot of stuff to study, and this is, after all, flyover country we're talking about here, but when you're only researching two talking points, is it too much to ask that you know how many games are actually being played? Alright, deep breath. End of rant.
As the Cardinals prepare to square off against the Brewers, they have a fairly solid pair of pitching match-ups. In the first game, Todd Wellemeyer will go for the Cards, opposed by Ben Sheets. Of all the teams in baseball, Sheets has had more trouble with the Cardinals than any other opponent. He's 4-15 lifetime against St. Louis, with an ERA of 4.20. Compared to the numbers that Sheets typically puts up in his career, those are positively alarming figures.
Adding to that, Sheets has been sliding as of late, with a 1-4, 4.56 line since the Brewers acquired CC Sabathia. Of course, Ben Sheets is perfectly capable of shutting down any opponent, any time; he's one of the most talented pitchers in all of baseball. Still, the Cardinals are catching him at a good time, and they do as well as anybody against him.
Todd Wellemeyer, on the other hand, has shown signs lately of regaining his early season form. His slider has finally begun to look more consistent. It had been AWOL since his elbow troubles a couple months back; if he has truly turned it around, the slider is Welley's most effective weapon. Even against the left-handed heavy lineup of Milwaukee, the Colonel is capable of tossing a gem. The only question is whether or not he will.
In the second game, the Cardinals will see the Brewers' young, talented lefty, Manny Parra. He has been a revelation this season, after his star appeared to be fading coming in to 2008. Parra has excellent stuff, especially for a lefty, and has shown solid poise in addition. We all know, of course, of the problems the Cards have had with lefties in the past, but they have been better this season.
The best weapon against good starting pitching, of course, is good pitching of your own, and the Cardinals will certainly have that, in the person of one Adam Wainwright. Wainwright will be making his second start since coming back from the disabled list with a finger injury, so there is still reason for concern about his stamina and effectiveness. However, he was outstanding in his last start against Atlanta, as he gave up only a single run in a Cardinal victory. Wainwright has been a horse for the Cardinals since becoming a starting pitcher, and he's the man you want to see on the mound when you need a win.
As always, a big part of how successful the Cardinals will be in this series is going to come down squarely on the broad shoulders of Number 5. Albert Pujols went absolutely nuts in the last series against the Braves, and if he can continue to produce at any sort of comparable level for the next two games, you have to like the Cards' chances.
The key, as usual, will be to get runners on base ahead of Pujols. If Milwaukee can simply walk Albert without fear every time he comes up, those big numbers are going to be tough to put up. If, on the other hand, the bases are consistently occupied, Albert will see far more in the way of strikes, and the results will most likely speak for themselves.
When it comes to the Brewers' offense, you have to handle their lineup basically the same way you go after the Cardinals. You don't want to face Prince Fielder with men on base if it can at all be helped. Retiring guys like Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy is of the utmost importance if you want to beat the Brew Crew.
The Cardinals will get a break in this series, as Ryan Braun is still fighting injury issues. Braun has proven to be quite the beast when facing the Cards in his brief career, so any chance to avoid him can only help.
All in all, the series really matches up for the Cardinals about as well as you could hope for. They are facing talented pitchers, but not the seemingly invincible Sabathia, and they've had great success against at least one of the hurlers they'll see. The Brewers are missing one of their most productive hitters, who also just happens to be one of the best batsmen in all of baseball.
The table is set for the Cardinals to get right back up on the Brewers. Remember, this is the team that absolutely collapsed down the stretch last year. You can't count on that, of course, but putting the screws to a team with that sort of recent history still in the backs of their minds is of paramount importance.
Maintaining the status quo here isn't good enough. A split just isn't going to get it done. Getting swept may very well put this team on the verge of being too far back. The only option is to take both games.
Go to it, boys.