(Editor's note: We'll analyze each team's postseason chances after it clinches a playoff berth.)
Owners of the majors' best record for the majority of the season, it's only fitting that the Cardinals became the first team to clinch a playoff berth Saturday. However, it came courtesy of the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants, whose lose to the Arizona Diamondbacks assured the Cardinals of a spot.
Based on its regular season success, St. Louis will enter the playoffs as many people's favorite to win its third World Series championship since 2006. But certainly not as strong a favorite as it appeared to be just a couple of weeks ago. The team has lost 10 of its past 16 games.
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What to expect from the Cardinals, who are making their fifth consecutive playoff appearance and 12th since 2000 ...
Why they can win the World Series: Despite a recent hiccup, the Cardinals' rotation leads the majors in ERA; their bullpen, which is loaded with relievers who have closing experience, ranks second. Injuries that would have crippled most teams during the season (or at least slowed them down) seemingly did nothing but create tremendous depth for St. Louis.
Offensively, the team is unconventional -- its leading home run hitter (Matt Carpenter) bats leadoff -- and ranks in the lower third in the majors in runs scored. However, improved health should help in that department. Matt Holliday and Matt Adams are back, and have a chance to shake off some rust before the postseason. And even ace Adam Wainwright, believed to be lost for the season with a torn Achilles, could return in a relief role.
Catcher Yadier Molina can keep opposing baserunners at bay, and St. Louis is strong defensively. Manager Mike Matheny already has loads of postseason experience, as do many of the Cardinals' prime contributors.
Why they can't win the World Series: The offense has been sporadic in the second half, totally three runs or fewer 27 times. The Cardinals' starting pitching kept the team afloat during much of that span but has sprung a few leaks of late. Since Aug. 30, Lance Lynn has a 9.26 ERA in three starts, Michael Wacha has a 7.20 ERA in three starts, and Jaime Garcia has a 5.25 ERA in four starts.
And remember that opposing teams will be throwing their aces, too; no team likely will be forced to go beyond three starters in a series unless it chooses to do so.
However, the main concern is the competition. Assuming St. Louis holds on to win the NL Central, it will catch no breaks in the NLDS. Either the Cubs or Pirates -- the projected NL wild-card teams -- will advance to face St. Louis. If St. Louis survives that test, either the Mets or Dodgers likely will await. Worth noting: The Cardinals are a combined 27-21 against the Cubs, Pirates, Mets and Dodgers this season and have a losing record against none of them (but are 1-4 vs. the Cubs and 1-2 vs. the Pirates this month). Regardless, the regular season results will mean little come October.
(Stats through Saturday, Sept. 19)