It’s days like this that can get you upset with the sheer injustice of it all. Six months, 162 games, and it all might come down to ... a missed pitch or two? Whether you want to blame the pitcher or the catcher or both on a ball that comes loose and lets runners advance, well, that’s something best left to the official scorer, usually to nobody’s satisfaction. But on Saturday, the Braves and Cardinals, the two teams locked in a race to the finish for the National League wild-card slot, experienced each side of this simple misplay, by taking turns regretting or celebrating pitches that didn’t get caught. And now, because of that, the outcome of the race remains a concern with just four games to play.
The Cardinals benefited from more than a few errant deliveries from baseball’s reigning wild man, Cubs closer Carlos Marmol. Marmol is the man on the mound most capable of deciding everything at home plate, just not always in a good way, between his walking or hitting batters when he isn’t striking them out, giving up a gopher ball, or seeing the occasional offering hop away, through or off his backstop.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, Marmol failed in his fireman duties, instead delivering a hair-on-fire special that Wrigleyville has only become too familiar with, even with two outs and a one-run lead. But getting hung up on this kind of one-game reprieve distracts from the two things really worth keeping in mind about the Cardinals right now. First, Kyle Lohse followed Chris Carpenter’s Friday night gem with a great game of his own, which is easy to fix on, but these games are a perfect example of how good Cardinals starting pitching has been this month. If you define a quality start by runs allowed and not unearned runs -- you know, by paying attention to the scoreboard rather than the official scorer’s opinion of balls that didn’t get fielded -- the Cards’ front five starters have pitched six innings or more and allowed three runs or less in 15 of 21 games, which goes a long way toward explaining why the Redbirds are 15-7 this month.
The second thing worth keeping in mind is that while the Cardinals failed to scratch out a run against the immortal Rodrigo Lopez, you can be 100 percent certain they won’t have to see him on the mound in this or any October. One game’s just proof that, even with MVP talent in the lineup and a Hall of Fame manager in the dugout, sometimes you really just can’t predict baseball. Other than waning enthusiasm for Skip Schumaker that’s only a year or so overdue, there isn’t much you can complain about with the Cards’ offense down the stretch; it's cranked out 4.5 runs per game in September.
Atlanta’s ballgame was similar, in that the Braves also had to endure the indignity of taking a tough loss at the hands of a far-from-dominant retread, Chien-Ming Wang. But the outcome hinged so much on Brandon Beachy and Brian McCann missing on two pitches in the fourth inning that, if you’re a Braves fan, you have to be agonizing over them still. The second was the more damaging, since it moved both baserunners into scoring position, creating the situation in which both could score on Danny Espinosa’s soft single to left-center. That set up Espinosa’s steal, which set up Ivan Rodriguez’s two out intentional walk -- ordered up by Mr. IBB himself, Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez -- a daisy chain of interdependent events that ended with the indignity of Wang’s RBI single to put the Nats up by four. Football might claim to be the game of inches, but for Beachy’s missing McCann’s glove just barely, it was baseball’s turn to see a team live and die in one game by the narrowest of margins.
These plays, the slightest of mistakes at even the best of times, get magnified because they happened now, when the sense of what’s at stake gets talked up and magnified. Because for one happy team there’s an invitation to a League Division Series at the end of the rainbow, getting to games that mean something, games that mean everything. For the other club, what awaits is a winter’s worth of hunting and club caravans, speaking engagements or -- heaven help them -- golf. These narrowest of margins are the difference between a shot at achieving history versus getting a couple of weeks' head start on the hobbies you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting.
Four games left, and two to make up. The Cardinals might still seem a long shot to make up the difference, but sometimes it’s only the odd inch or two or one man’s bad ballgame that makes all the difference. While the Braves take on the Phillies while hoping for some small measure of mercy from a division rival, the Cardinals have three games to play against the Astros after finishing their series against the Cubs on Sunday. Clearly, it ain’t over until it’s over.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.