St. Louis Cardinals
(image from Jeff Roberson/AP Photo)

Because of September, the Saint Louis Cardinals are Playoff Bound

The Saint Louis Cardinals are playoff bound thanks to a miraculous month of September. The redbirds clinched the second National League wild card spot on Sept. 28 when they defeated the NL Central champion Milwaukee Brewers 6-2 at home. That win marked their 17th in a row. Seventeen. One-seven.

What in the world happened? Wasn’t this the team that couldn’t get away from the .500 mark? Yes, in fact, the Cardinals were under .500 as recent as August 8. How did they turn it around? How did they overcome the four other teams in the National League that were fighting for that last wild card spot?

The Mind-blowing 17-game Win Streak

The Saint Louis Cardinals became the story in Major League Baseball by winning 17 straight games from Sept. 11 to Sept. 28. Eleven of those 17 consecutive wins came away from their home stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. They caught absolute fire.

The Cardinals’ season was looking bleak heading into September. They entered the month with a record of 67-63 and sat three games behind the San Diego Padres for the second wild card spot in the NL. It was looking even bleaker entering Sept. 11, as the Padres had an extra half a game lead on them, and their record sat at 71-69. Then, the magic spell was casted.

The win streak started with eight wins against the Cincinnati Reds, Padres, and New York Mets. The Cardinals were chasing all three for a playoff berth, as well as the Philadelphia Phillies, who have missed the postseason again. All of the sudden, St. Louis was 10 games over .500, and moved all the way up to three games ahead of the Reds, Padres, Phillies, while the Mets collapsed and fell four games under .500. They then swept back-to-back four-game series in Milwaukee and Chicago against the Brewers and Cubs, respectively, then returned home to clinch their playoff berth in front of their home fans.

The streak ended Sept. 29 when the Brewers shut the Cardinals out 4-0. It was St. Louis’s first loss since Sept. 10 – a 4-2 home loss to Cincinnati. The 17-game win streak was the National League’s longest win streak since the Cubs won 21 in a row in 1938.

The Numbers: 17-game Win Streak

Over the course of the streak, the Saint Louis Cardinals won four one-run games. They had a +62-run differential with 74 extra-base hits – 34 being home runs.

St. Louis also had some timely hitting in this stretch. As a team, they had a 1.101 OPS in high-leverage situations. According to StatCorner.com, a high-leverage at-bat is “one where the win expectancy has potential to dramatically move based on the outcome.” For example, an at-bat in the bottom of the ninth in tied ballgame with the bases loaded will have higher leverage than, say, the leadoff hitter of a ballgame. Each at-bat is assigned a value, where 1 is average. The Cardinals delivered time and time again in high-leverage situations, and even posted a 1.097 OPS in situations with runners in scoring position and two outs.

The Numbers: September

The Cardinals went 22-7 in September, which, to no surprise, was the best record they put together in a single month in 2021. They had a +47-run differential and went 8-1 in one-run games. Going into the month, they were 17-16 in one-run games.

In 29 games, the Cardinals scored 158 runs on 251 hits, 50 doubles, and 52 home runs. The team hit .264/.317/.484. Players that led the way were Paul Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill, and Harrison Bader. Between the three of them, they had 100 total hits. Here’s how their September stats looked like:

PlayerBatting AverageOPSHome RunsRBIWalksOPS+
Goldschmidt.3401.14191916204
O’Neill.3031.01311278167
Bader.340.9916184163

Surprisingly, the pitching for the Saint Louis Cardinals in September was not spectacular, but it was still good. The pitching staff posted a 3.75 ERA with 202 strikeouts and 89 walks. Some standout starters were 40-year-old Adam Wainwright and 37-year-old Jon Lester. Notable relievers were Genesis Cabrera and Kodi Whitley. Here’s how their September stats looked like:

PlayerGamesWinsLossesERAStrikeoutsWalks
Wainwright6403.441910
Lester5203.07199
Cabrera11200.00133
Whitley11000.00174

Other Numbers

I mentioned the Saint Louis Cardinals were a team throughout the season that struggled to get above and pull away .500. At the all-star break, the Cardinals were 44-46 but have gone 46-24 since. Run differentials for the first half and second half are -40 and +76, respectively. They are 7-2 in games decided in extra innings and 26-17 in one-run games.

The breakdown by each month for the 2021 redbirds looks like this:

MonthWinsLossesRun Differential
April1412+9
May1612-9
June1017-42
July1211+1
August1511+29
September227+47
October10+1

How Did the Other Teams Do in September?

Even without the 17-game win streak, the Cardinals would be sitting in a good spot today. The four other teams they were battling with did not have good Septembers. Because of these records, they have an eight-game lead on the next best NL squad:

TeamWinsLossesRun Differential
Phillies1314-5
Reds1115-3
Padres619-44
Mets1116-2

Are the Cardinals Actually This Good?

Pythagorean win-loss percentage is a tool used to estimate a team’s record based on their run differential. After September, the Cardinals had a Pythagorean W/L% of .524 with an actual W/L% of .560. Based on this stat, St. Louis was closer to a team like the Padres (.519 Pythagorean W/L%, .491 actual W/L%) than, say, the Brewers (.589 Pythagorean W/L%, .597 actual W/L%) at the end of September. This is a classic case of a team getting hot at the right time.

What’s Ahead for the Saint Louis Cardinals?

The redbirds will draw one of baseball’s two best teams in the wild card game. The San Francisco Giants are currently 106-54 and hold a two-game lead on the Los Angeles Dodgers (104-56) for the NL West crown. The Giants’ magic number for the division is just one with just two games remaining.

The 90-win Cardinals are sending Adam Wainwright out to face the NL West’s runner up. At first glance, it almost looks like they don’t belong on the same field as the Giants or Dodgers, but if St. Louis really is playing their best baseball, it’s very possible they can carry that momentum through a winner-take-all wild card game with their ace. Who knows? Maybe the Saint Louis Cardinals make a run at the 2021 World Series title.

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