Just as you might have wondered how a Tony La Russa ballclub managed to win a title in 2006, with three games to go, the Cardinals have a shot at catching or passing the Braves. They're in a situation that, despite being a game back, most other teams chasing a leader might envy. While the Braves have to host Philadelphia and hope the Phillies don’t dent Atlanta's postseason aspirations the way the Yankees did with the Red Sox, St. Louis jets down to Houston to face baseball’s worst ballclub.
For this Cardinals team, you can understand how they might already be playing with no sense of tomorrow. First, they've been trying to catch the slumping Braves for a month. Second, with Albert Pujols' impending free agency, thinking ahead is already bittersweet. This may be the Cardinals’ last shot at winning with Pujols in the fold. It's also their last shot at winning with the man who might knock Lou Gehrig from history’s perch as the game’s greatest first baseman -- if he hasn’t already.
Different people will read whatever they want into Rafael Furcal's game-winning home run Sunday. La Russa, as a scold, benching Furcal on Friday after the star shortstop blew a double play? Sure, that’s one way to look at it. Another is that he gave a notoriously fragile regular a rest day. Whatever narrative you want to build around Furcal’s three-day journey from goat to hero is sort of beside the point. As Doug Glanville reminded us, at this time of year, the list of heroes can run long.
It’s also clear that the Braves team that looked ready to cruise into October a few weeks back is not the same banged-up squad clinging to its lead in the race. How much of that you can blame on injuries (or how injured players have been handled) is something that will surely be discussed however their run ends.
Consider how things have gone for one of their best players this season. At the break, Brian McCann had an .894 OPS and was a reasonable mid-ballot choice on anybody’s MVP vote. That was before he strained an oblique and headed to the DL on July 27. But after McCann was reactivated, he has hit .174/.296/.347 in 148 plate appearances, while the Braves have gone 16-17 when he starts. That’s a huge drop-off from a man who belonged in a “best player in the league” conversation.
But McCann is only one of many cases of a Brave batting badly while limping through an injury-marred season. Martin Prado hasn’t been the same hitter since missing a month with a staph infection in his calf, delivering just a .249/.290/.339 clip at the plate since being reactivated at the All-Star break. That’s poor production from any lineup slot, but getting that from a left fielder over the second half adds insult to injury in a big league lineup. Chipper Jones has fought through his annual infirmities, and Jason Heyward has struggled through his own tough campaign, playing through various hurts.
Atlanta’s offense has stumbled down the stretch with McCann and Prado not producing, and hoped-for leadoff solution Michael Bourn delivering less than expected. The Braves have cranked out just 3.4 runs while hitting a collective .240/.308/.359 during their 9-15 run in September. For all of the wailing over the absences of Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, or about Derek Lowe’s struggle to deliver a quality start every other time out, anybody would have problems delivering wins with that little support. With youngsters Brandon Beachy, Randall Delgado and Mike Minor all giving the Braves games they can win in September, organizational depth and old-school player development has done much to mute rotation-related complaints.
Admittedly, these are not the starters you’d choose for an ideal postseason rotation. But they’re not the reason the Braves might not even win the wild card. Atlanta’s biggest problem is on offense, to the point that even if the Braves do manage to limp into October, their hitting will remain an issue they’ll have a hard time overcoming.
Three days and three games to go, and given the two teams’ matchups in that action, it’s only too easy to anticipate a 163rd ballgame. David Schoenfield already made this point, but it hardly seems like we need one-game play-ins for the postseason when we’re already fortunate enough as fans to get them.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.