Around 9:00 pm EST on Tuesday night, it looked as if the clock was already striking midnight for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Atlanta Braves, who began the evening with a 2.5-game lead in the National League wild card race, were up early on the Marlins in Florida. Tony La Russa's Cards, meanwhile, were trailing the New York Mets at Busch Stadium. If those scores held then the Redbirds would have been facing a 3.5-game deficit with just eight games to play. With scoreboard watching as much a part of a ballplayer's routine this time of year as visits to the trainer and dealing with media, odds are that everyone in the St. Louis dugout was aware of the situation.
Although the Braves would hold on and win, the Redbirds would explode for six runs in the seventh frame to rally past the stumbling Metropolitans and keep pace in the race for the NL's wild card berth in the postseason
"The Braves can lose the rest of the games that they got left and if we don't take care of business, they're still going to win the wild card," Albert Pujols, who went 4 for 5, told reporters after game. "All we can do is go nine innings hard and hopefully get a 'W,' at the end of the day."
Having already dropped 12 of their 20 games in September, the Braves may be starting to worry that they actually can lose the rest of their games. The Bravos have a magic number of six games, but their remaining schedule includes a series with the Nationals and three-game set versus the Phillies. The Cardinals do have an easier road with games against the Mets, Astros and Cubs.
Here is a look at the divisional races in the National League:
On Sept. 17, the Philadlephia Phillies got stellar starting pitching by one of their aces while one of their hitters walloped a grand slam out of Citizens Bank Park to deliver a win over the visiting St. Louis Cardinals. Ho Hum. The Fightin' Phils clinched their fifth consecutive division title with that triumph. If Uncle Charlie's boys can maintain the gaudy .636 winning percentage that they're sporting with about a week remaining in the season then they will have put together the best season in franchise history, which dates back to 1883 when the Philadelphia Quakers went 17-81 in an early draft of the National League.
After dropping two out of three to the St. Louis Cardinals during a weekend series in early May, the Milwaukee Brewers were floundering. Their record stood at 14-20 and they were already 5.5 games back of the Redbirds. Along with the defending NL Central champions in Cincinnati, perennial doormats like the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs were listed above the Brew Crew in the standings. But a funny thing happened on the way to Prince Fielder's impending contract negotiations. The Brewers heated up as the summer went along. After being tied for the division lead on July 24, the Brewers reeled off 27 wins in their next 32 games to build a 10.5-lead by Aug. 28. Milwaukee's "magic number" to clinch the division is three games.
By some combination of geography and lack of expectations, the most inspiring story in baseball is among the least reported. With rookie skipper Kirk Gibson holding the reins, the Arizona Diamondbacks got off to a stuttering start. They played under .500 baseball for the better part of two months and the most interesting baseball story coming out of the desert involved the chance that perhaps some of the game's top Hispanic players would boycott the 2011 All-Star Game at Chase Field due to Arizona's SB 1070 law. They didn't, but Gibson's D-backs have given baseball fans reason to pay attention. Thanks to NL MVP candidate Justin Upton and NL Cy Young candidate Ian Kennedy, the Diamondbacks have overtaken the defending world champion San Franciso Giants in the standings. By taking two of three from the Giants at AT&T Park earlier this month, Gibson's squad established themselves as the favorites down the stretch. Their magic number to clinch the division is down to three games. The Giants are a bit closer in the wild card race but any chance they have to defend their 2010 crown depends on multiple teams collapsing over the next several days.