The Cardinals are due back in the World Series this fall based on their remarkable pattern of alternating every other year with the Giants as National League representatives during this decade. That is a well-known fact proudly espoused by all of Redbird Nation.
But there is perhaps something more important at stake: The title of Best Cardinals Team Ever.
As the wins keep piling up at Busch Stadium, it is now worth taking a serious look at possible dream finishes for one of Major League Baseball's elite, the club of Musial and Gibson and Brock and Hornsby. St. Louis is 86-46 (.652) after 132 games, and at that pace, it would finish with the club's best winning percentage since the 1942-44 dynasty that was consistently in the .680s. The '44 club posted its best record 106-48 (.688) of the modern era.
Tony La Russa's 2004 NL champs were 105-57 (.648). Had they not lost Chris Carpenter during his start on Sept. 18 of that season, they might have avoided a fateful sweep in Boston's reversing of a curse and become the best Cardinals club ever. As it stood, the '04 Cards were still the team's winningest club in 60 years at that point.
At its current pace, Mike Matheny's 2015 club is on track for the franchise's best mark since World War II. The possibilities of the only 107-win season and best winning percentage certainly exist. Let's consider that .688 mark in 1944 the peak in this club's history for a moment.
Just a 14-16 finish would put this in the ranks of select 100-win Cardinals clubs. And these Cards are unlikely to play anywhere around .500 ball as long as it's still baseball season.
Here are a few provisos:
1. If the Cardinals build enough cushion over the Pirates and Cubs in the coming weeks, then Matheny may be more inclined to rest regulars. It is not a given, but there is plenty of precedent.
2. There has been a new World Series champion every year since Arizona in 2001, and if anyone other than the Giants wins it all this fall, then that will break the record for longest MLB streak without a repeat. Competitive balance is steady. The memory of Neftali Feliz vs. David Freese just reminds you what a team often must go through to host a parade.
3. "Best Team Ever" is inherently subjective. First, you obviously have to win the World Series if it's a Cardinals discussion. How much does a regular-season record even mean in such consideration? The 1934 Gas House Gang was absolutely loaded, going 95-58 (.621) and then rallying to beat the Tigers in seven. You could say that's the best Cards club ever. But what about '46, when Stan and everyone was back from war and the Cardinals were 98-58 (.628) and beat the Red Sox in seven thanks to Enos Slaughter's Mad Dash?
There are 30 games remaining, so say the 2015 Cardinals finish strong with a 21-9 record and wind up 107-55 (.661). That would make it the only 107-win team in club history.
This would merit an asterisk, because the club's only 106-win team, in 1942, played 156 total games, or six fewer than 2015. And the 105-win teams in 1943-44 each played 157. The 2004 Cards won their 105 games in the modern 162-game schedule, and that was the most wins by a St. Louis club since 1944.
Therefore, it is best to focus on top all-time winning percentage rather than most victories. Should the Cardinals win 107 and their 12th World Series title -- surviving a 10-team bracket, which is a much greater challenge than the Gas House Gang or the '40s, '60s and even the '80s clubs faced -- there should be little argument that this would be the Best Cardinals Team Ever.
Still, how realistic is it to reach 107?
Look at the remaining games on the Cardinals' schedule. It is not ideal for history-watchers.
Sixteen of the last 22 games are on the road, and that includes three at Wrigley Field and three at PNC Park. One could certainly imagine the Cubs and Pirates having major incentive in those games. If they are battling for the first and second NL Wild Card spots at that time, for example, then home-field advantage in that one-game NL Wild Card Game Presented by Budweiser would be enormous.
This is one of the final two homestands at Busch, and the one starting Sunday is going to be huge. Nine games and three teams that need to keep winning. First come the Nationals, hardly the team anyone expected last spring, yet a team that knows it must keep winning to stay within reach of the Mets in the NL East. Then come the Pirates and Cubs.
The final homestand will feature three against Cincinnati and four against Milwaukee, certainly a homestand one might expect St. Louis to handle easily at its present pace. Yet again, if the Cards have clinched by then, one wonders how often the regular lineup will get rest.
Only four Cardinals seasons have reached the century mark in wins since MLB expanded its schedule to 162 games:
• El Birdos of 1967, 101-60 in 161 games (the additional game was not made up), won the NL pennant by 10 1/2 games and then beat the Red Sox in seven. Gibson won three times in the World Series. This was a team loaded with future Hall of Famers.
• Whitey Herzog's 1985 Runnin' Redbirds, 101-61. They lost to the Royals (then a 91-win team) in the I-70 Series. Perhaps this St. Louis club will win exactly 101 games and go on to meet the same Kansas City club that has continued to hold the American League's best record. Should the two Missouri clubs meet again, the stage would even be set for another World Series Game 7 home-field advantage for the Royals.
• The 2004-05 Cardinals. St. Louis was a mere speed bump for a Boston team of destiny, and the following year, Houston denied the Cards the '05 NL pennant (before being swept by the White Sox).
So many things can happen, and that tough road finish seems like the biggest barrier for the 2015 Cardinals. The surest bet is that they will join the elite 100-win clubs of their past, even if they slow down significantly.
Those who watch them win night after night from coast to coast -- relying on a deep rotation, a stalwart bullpen including a top closer, stellar defense, smart baserunning, clutch hitting, chemistry and an pure swagger of confidence -- might see a path to .689. And remember that this club plays in the toughest division in baseball.
Keep in mind that those 1942-44 clubs, while dominant, played at a time when the Majors were without some of the best talent due to military service. The '42 Cardinals had to withstand a Brooklyn club that won a then-club-record 104 games in the NL, and then those Cards beat the Yankees in five.
Still, they were the best of a wartime brand of baseball, and that may be label enough. One could argue that you don't have to top .688 to be better than that Cardinals club that topped the Browns in the Meet Me In St. Louis Series of 1944.
These current Cardinals are the definition of team. They are carried by no one. They are a deep unit of working parts, players who pick up each other, clutch up and down. And if you break down the WAR of those working parts for the 2015 club and compare to past great Cards clubs, then you can see just how much the balanced pitching staff is a key to this one.
The 1934 Gashouse Gang and '42 Cardinals each had seven players with a WAR of 2.5 or better, according to baseballreference.com. The former included MVP Dizzy Dean (8.5), Ripper Collins (6.3), Paul Dean (4.9), Bill Walker (3.5), Joe Medwick (3.2), Bill DeLancey (3.0) and Frankie Frisch (2.5). The latter featured Mort Cooper (8.4), Slaughter (6.2), Musial (5.3), Marty Marion (4.7), Johnny Beazley (4.4), Max Lanier (4.0) and Terry Moore (2.6).
The 1967 Cards had nine players at 2.5 or better: Orlando Cepeda (6.8), Tim McCarver (6.0), Lou Brock (5.6), Curt Flood (5.3), Dick Hughes (4.2), Roger Maris and Nelson Briles (3.6 each), Steve Carlton (2.8), Julian Javier (2.6) and Gibson (2.5).