MILWAUKEE — Not only did the Cardinals lock up the NL Central title Tuesday night, but they did it in Milwaukee right in front of the rival Brewers — winners of the division last season.
As the NL’s No. 3 seed, the Cardinals will now use their remaining games — one more against the Brewers on Wednesday and six straight against the Pirates — to get healthy and ready before the playoffs begin.
Here are some frequently asked questions the Cardinals need to answer before the start of the playoffs next week:
What could the postseason roster look like?
C: Yadier Molina, Andrew Knizner
1B: Paul Goldschmidt
2B: Brendan Donovan
SS: Tommy Edman, Paul DeJong
3B: Nolan Arenado
LF: Tyler O’Neill, Corey Dickerson
CF: Dylan Carlson
RF: Lars Nootbaar, Alec Burleson
DH: Albert Pujols, Juan Yepez
Starters: Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, José Quintana, Jordan Montgomery
Relievers: Ryan Helsley, Giovanni Gallegos, Dakota Hudson, Steven Matz, Jordan Hicks, Andre Pallante, Zack Thompson/Génesis Cabrera/JoJo Romero
When do the playoffs begin and who will the Cardinals be facing?
The best-of-three Wild Card Series presented by Hankook Tire will be played Oct. 7 (Friday) and Oct. 8 (Saturday), and Oct. 9 (Sunday), if necessary. The higher seed will host all three games. Times have yet to be set for the three games.
As the winner of the NL Central, the Cardinals will have the No. 3 seed and will host the lowest-seeded Wild Card (No. 6). The Padres, Phillies and Brewers are still in contention for the No. 6 seeds. The Cardinals were 4-2 against the Padres, sweeping them in St. Louis and won the final game of a three-game set in San Diego last week. As for the Phillies, the Cardinals were 3-4, but they won the final two meetings at Busch Stadium in mid-July. The Cards split their first 14 meetings with the Brewers before finally putting some distance between themselves and their biggest division rival. They were 5-4 against the Brewers at Busch Stadium this season.
Which potential playoff foe has Albert Pujols hit the best against this season?
Pujols, he of the 700 home runs following more heroics Friday night at Dodger Stadium, has defied the odds and defied Father Time this season. Incredibly, the 42-year-old slugger went into Tuesday’s series in Milwaukee with 21 home runs and 58 RBIs in his final season.
Pujols was 4-for-13 this season against the Phillies, with three of the hits (one a home run) coming in a dramatic, come-from-behind 4-3 win on July 10. He had five hits and 2 RBIs this season against the Padres, but no home runs. Meanwhile, Pujols came into Tuesday with eight hits, three home runs and 11 RBIs against the Brewers this season. In his historic career, he hit 45 home runs against the Brewers — the fifth most off any franchise.
What injuries/issues do the Cardinals need to figure out between now and the start of the playoffs?
Reliever Jordan Hicks (right arm fatigue, neck spasms) and outfielder Tyler O’Neill (left hamstring strain) are working to get back on the roster before the start of the playoffs. Hicks started a throwing program Tuesday that should have him back in shape soon. O’Neill, who has battled two hamstring injuries and shoulder and wrist issues, is set to begin a running program Wednesday in St. Louis. The Cardinals desperately need him back because of his rare combination of speed, power and Gold Glove defense.
Lefty Génesis Cabrera was one of the Cardinals most reliable relievers early in the season, but a bout on the COVID IL knocked him out of action for a couple of weeks, and he struggled in the weeks after that. Demoted to Triple-A Memphis on August 27, Cabrera has gone 1-1, and he is 2-for-3 in save opportunities with the Redbirds. More importantly, Cabrera’s velocity is back in the 96-98 mph range. He could be a callup to the playoff roster because of his ability to retire lefty hitters in high-leverage spots.
The final bullpen spot could come down to a decision between rookie lefty Zack Thompson, hard-throwing lefty JoJo Romero and Cabrera. All three have swing-and-miss stuff, but Cabrera likely gets the nod if his velocity is once again in top form.
What could the pitching rotation look like for the playoffs?
This area could lead to some sticky decisions for manager Oliver Marmol and pitching coach Mike Maddux because of some recent trends — both good and bad trends.
Adam Wainwright, a franchise fixture for nearly two decades and the pitcher the team has wanted on the mound in big spots for years, has struggled mightily of late. While battling “dead arm” for the first time ever in September, Wainwright has allowed 17 earned runs over 24 innings in his past five starts.
Meanwhile, Quintana and Flaherty have hit their stride at the right time. Since coming to the Cardinals, Quintana is 3-1 with four quality starts and a 2.14 ERA. He limited the Dodgers to just five hits in 6 2/3 scoreless innings Friday. Also, he’s allowed just one home run since he’s been a Cardinal. As for Flaherty, he struck out five Reds on Sept. 16 and nine Padres on Sept. 22, giving the potential dominant swing-and-miss that the staff often lacks.
Mikolas was the Cardinals’ best pitcher most of the season before wobbling in late August and September. However, he has looked strong down the stretch and is a contender to pitch Game 1 of the playoffs. Montgomery was a candidate for that spot when he started 5-0 as a Cardinal, but he’s fallen on hard times of late when he’s been inconsistent with his command, and he’s had trouble, giving up too many home runs.
Who would the Cardinals play if they win the Wild Card Series?
The Dodgers locked up the NL’s No. 1 seed on Sunday when they defeated the Cardinals. As for the No. 2 seed, it’s still up for grabs between the Braves and the Mets.
If the Cardinals survive the Wild Card Series, they would face the NL East champion — the No. 2 seed — in the NLDS. The Cardinals were 1-2 at Busch Stadium against the Mets and went 1-3 in New York. They lost three of four in Atlanta but won two of three at home against the Braves in late August.
Games 1, 2 and 5 of that best-of-five series would be on the road for the Cardinals.