111 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

ST. LOUIS -- There will be a day when it's got to happen.

It's just not going to happen this year.

Once again.

Just when it looked like the National League Central race would be a doozy, a three-headed showdown between the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates, leave it to the Cardinals to ruin the drama.

The Cardinals, who spent 150 days looking up at the Brewers, with the Pirates breathing down their necks, put the NL Central race away Wednesday by completing a three-game sweep of the Pirates, just when the race started to get interesting.

Oh, sure, the standings will show that the Cardinals entered Wednesday evening with a narrow 2½-game lead over the Brewers and a five-game cushion over the Pirates.

It feels like a 20-game lead.

"We have a long ways to go here," Cardinals GM John Mozeliak tells USA TODAY Sports, dismissing any suggestion of ordering champagne for their 11th celebration in the last four years. "But I do think this team is starting to play well, and we're excited about it.

"We haven't been healthy as a group since April, and any time you lose a guy like (Yadier) Molina and not take a step backward, (it) is a credit to everyone else. We held serve. The timing for us coming together is good news."

And awful news for anyone hoping for a little suspense in the NL Central.

The NL Central teams can only blame themselves. They had their chance to bury the Cardinals, who suffered major injuries to their best players and watched their marquee players underperform and their prized rookie melt under the spotlight.

But now, with the Cardinals winning their fifth consecutive game Wednesday on Peter Bourjos' walk-off single, you might as well put an asterisk next to the Cardinals in the standings.

This race is over.

You won't hear the Cardinals say it, or dare whisper about their chance of putting a stranglehold on the division when they open a four-game series today at Miller Park vs. the free-falling Brewers.

"Milwaukee is playing bad baseball right now," Molina says, aware of the Brewers' seven-game losing streak, "but they're dangerous. They're hungry."

Yet, no one is as lethal as the Cardinals these days, who are playing with their most emotion and energy of the season, says Bourjos, who produced his first walk-off hit in three years.

The Cardinals displayed their fire when Pirates starter Edinson Volquez hit Matt Holliday and Matt Adams in the fourth inning. Cardinals starter Shelby Miller retaliated with a pitch behind Andrew McCutchen's back in the sixth. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called it a "cheap shot and an ambush." It left the two benches taunting each another.

The Cardinals got the last laugh when rookie Carlos Martinez struck out McCutchen with the go-ahead runner on second base in a 10-pitch at-bat in the eighth inning, stomping off the mound, pounding his chest, while McCutchen stared at him.

"I knew we'd win," Martinez said, "if I got him out there."

Yes sir, the Cardinals are back, just in time to take their usual spot behind the red velvet rope in the Major League Baseball playoff section.

"We're more confident than we have been all year," ace Adam Wainwright says. "I mean, we were confident all year, but in a different way. We were confident we were going to play better ball eventually. We kept showing up expecting it to happen.

"Now, we're playing good baseball. We know we control our own destiny now."

Certainly, it hasn't been an easy summer for the Cardinals, except at the cash register, where they've drawn 3.1 million fans with crowds surpassing 40,000 every game. Let's see, they've been outscored 536-533.

Wainwright has 16 victories, but is 4-5 with a 4.82 ERA in the second half.

Their marquee power hitter, Holliday, has been limited to 16 homers, but 10 have come in the second half.

Their stud prospect, Oscar Taveras, has struggled since his call-up, hitting .224 with two homers in 205 plate appearances.

Cleanup hitter Allen Craig never got going, hitting .237 with seven homers before he was shipped out of town.

And they spent most of the summer averaging 3.67 runs, second-worst.

Yet, despite all of the local angst, manager Mike Matheny remained calm, and his team took on his persona.

"He's done a tremendous job," Mozeliak says, "having to deal with all of the ups and downs with our roster and navigating through that. He has the respect of the players, kept the ship pointed in the right direction, and pushed it when he could."

The Cardinals have become almost boring with their consistency. They posted a winning record every month. They never won more than five consecutive games or lost more than four in a row. And they haven't been swept in a three-game series this season.

They know that no one can stop them now. They've won six of the seven Molina has played since returning from a broken thumb suffered July 9. Michael Wacha, MVP of the 2013 NL Championship Series, returns today to start for the first time since June 17. You're starting to see the swagger, but you won't hear it.

"I know it makes great journalism, but it doesn't make for good baseball," Matheny says. "The only way we're going to stay in this is if we stay consistent. Consistent is boring, but I believe it preps us to win. …

"It's paying off now. Hopefully, it pays off down the road."

See you boys in October.​

111 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://usat.ly/1rNrauO