ST. LOUIS -- While the Cardinals have been focused on holding off the surging Pirates to claim a division crown, they have quietly positioned themselves for something else that could prove critical in October: Win the National League Central and home-field advantage through the NL Championship Series is guaranteed to be theirs.
Though they have nine games left on their schedule, the Cardinals, with 97 wins, are already assured of finishing with a better record than the NL East champ. The first-place Mets entered Friday at 86-67. The best the Dodgers, currently leaders in the NL West, could do is tie the Cardinals -- and that would require the Dodgers winning their final 10 games and the Cardinals losing every one. Even if that were to occur, the Cardinals hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Los Angeles for winning the season series, 5-2.
And so that only leaves the Cubs and the Pirates preventing the Cardinals from not just bypassing the NL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, but also opening every subsequent series until the World Series at home. That could be series-changing, too, as the Cardinals, 54-24 at Busch Stadium this year, boast the Majors' best home winning percentage (.692).
The Cubs, after losing a one-run game to Pittsburgh on Friday afternoon, sit eight games back. The Cardinals can actually eliminate them from the NL Central race as early as Saturday. Any combination of two Cardinals wins and/or Cubs losses will knock Chicago out of division contention.
The Pirates have proven harder to shake. Winners of seven straight after Friday's victory, the Pirates sit 3 1/2 games back of the Cardinals, who have led the division outright since April 17. A potentially pivotal series between the division rivals looms, too, with the Cardinals set to travel to Pittsburgh for a three-game series beginning on Monday.
"It's not a surprise to us," manager Mike Matheny said of playing in a highly competitive division. "We knew there were going to be some very good teams in this division, period, and in the National League, and that we were going to have to go about our business day in and day out. As predicted, that's where we are."
The Cardinals' magic number to clinch their third straight NL Central title sits at six. After 153 games last year, the Cardinals held a 2 1/2-game lead over the Pirates. They eventually won the division by two games.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB, like her Facebook page Jenifer Langosch for Cardinals.com and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.