How did the Cardinals take over the NL Central race?

The best teams in St. Louis Cardinals history -- a history that includes 11 World Series titles, second only to the New York Yankees -- were built around stars: Dizzy Dean, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Ozzie Smith, Albert Pujols. When the Cardinals missed the playoffs last season for a third year in a row, the first time that had happened since 1999, a primary reason was they didn't have a big star. Matt Carpenter led the team with 4.9 WAR, the first season the Cardinals didn't have at least one 5.0 WAR player since 1994, and the first time in a non-strike season since 1990.

So the front office went out and got the team the star it needed: Paul Goldschmidt, who finished sixth in the 2018 MVP voting and had averaged 6.1 WAR over the previous six seasons.

Except ... the best player on the first-place Cardinals has arguably been ... not Goldschmidt, not Carpenter, not Marcell Ozuna, but second baseman Kolten Wong, who led the team with 3.9 WAR heading into Tuesday's game in Milwaukee. In other words, the 2019 Cardinals are much like the 2018 Cardinals, only this team is trending upward at the right time, as their 6-3 win over the Brewers was their sixth victory in a row, ninth in 10 games and 15th in 18 games. After a painful sweep in Los Angeles in early August in which they scored two runs in three games, the Cardinals were 58-55 and 3½ games out of first place. Now they're 73-58 and three games up on the Cubs in the NL Central.

Wong didn't start Tuesday but came off the bench and delivered two clutch hits. In the seventh inning, he pinch-hit and delivered an RBI double to give the Cardinals a 4-1 lead. In the ninth, his RBI single extended the lead to 6-3. The two other biggest hits came from Yadier Molina: a home run in the fifth and then a go-ahead, two-run homer in the seventh. The Brewers tried to make it interesting in the bottom of the ninth, as an infield single and a walk brought the tying run to the plate against Carlos Martinez, but Dexter Fowler made a leaping grab at the fence to end the game in heart-stopping fashion:

Has Wong really been the Cardinals' best player? His offensive stat line certainly doesn't pop, with a .276/.359/.401 line and 31 extra-base hits. Heck, 18 players have already hit 31 home runs. Wong does all those things that don't necessarily show up in the box score. He has that respectable .359 on-base percentage, so he's not chewing up outs the plate. He has played a terrific second base, leading all major league second basemen with plus-14 defensive runs saved (nobody else is above plus-6) and should be a lock to win his first Gold Glove. He has also been superb on the bases, swiping 17 bases in 19 attempts.

Of course, the big point here isn't that Wong is some sort of MVP candidate or something. He's not. The point is the Cardinals have surged past the Cubs because of solid depth throughout the roster. The Cubs have Javier Baez and Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, but they're staring up at the Cardinals despite their edge in star power.

There are two big keys for the Cardinals of late. One has been starter Jack Flaherty, who is pitching like the Cy Young candidate I thought he might be back in spring training. He's 4-1 over his past nine starts with a 0.80 ERA -- that's five runs allowed in 56⅓ innings, as batters have hit just .144/.221/.222 against him. This is looking a lot like that run Jake Arrieta had in the second half of 2015 when he carried the Cubs into the playoffs. Flaherty probably got going too late to have a chance at getting into the NL Cy Young race (his season ERA is 3.32), but he's the hottest starter in baseball right now.

Then there's bullpen, really the team's secret ingredient. The Cards are second in the majors with a 3.64 bullpen ERA (only Cleveland is better), and the relief crew hasn't missed a beat since Jordan Hicks went down because of Tommy John surgery. Martinez is 16-for-17 in save chances as closer (he has two other blown saves from earlier in the season as a setup guy), and while he has been bend-but-don't-break at times, he's mostly getting the job done. Manager Mike Shildt even used him like an old-fashioned fireman Tuesday for a five-out save. Given Martinez's history as a starter, Shildt should consider doing that more often.

The guy nobody talks about is Giovanny Gallegos, acquired last year in the Luke Voit trade -- the one everyone keeps mentioning as some sort of monumental steal for the Yankees. Gallegos did give up a run Tuesday, but he has a 2.07 ERA with 80 strikeouts in 61 innings. He owns a wipeout slider: Hitters are batting an anemic .133 against it with a 43% strikeouts rate.

Anyway, the playoff math has changed very quickly. Before this 15-of-18 stretch, the Cardinals' playoffs odds on FanGraphs were 29% overall and a 10.5% chance to win the division. Now they're at 86% overall and a 59.7% to win the division. Oh, and Flaherty starts Wednesday as the Cardinals go for a sweep of the Brewers.

In other words: Maybe the Cardinals don't need a star to win the NL Central.

Cubs take opener at Citi Field: Buster Olney and I discussed this series briefly on the Baseball Tonight podcast earlier in the day, with Buster suggesting this series has a little do-or-die feeling to it if one of the teams gets swept. I pointed out that the Mets had played really well at home all season until the Braves swept them over the weekend, while the Cubs' road woes have been well documented.

"No way the Mets will get swept in this series," I said. When Pete Alonso rocked Citi Field in the bottom of the fourth with his franchise-record 42nd home run, to give the Mets a 1-0 lead, it certainly seemed as if it would be the Mets' night. Instead, Addison Russell and Baez clubbed two-run homers off Marcus Stroman in the fifth and sixth innings. Baez also added an RBI double and made a leaping grab in the field. Yu Darvish settled down after the Alonso home run and pitched eight fantastic innings. By the way, Darvish over his past nine starts: 55⅓ IP, 41 H, 3 BB, 72 SO, 11 HR, 2.93 ERA.

Anyway, that's four losses in a row for the Mets, with the offense scoring one, one and two runs in three of those games. The good news: Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom start the next two games. I'll stick to my comment that the Mets won't get swept.

Verlander cruises in Cy Young contender showdown ... until he gets ejected: Maybe Justin Verlander just wanted to go watch some US Open. With the Astros up 9-0 in the sixth inning after routing Charlie Morton, Verlander was cruising along with a four-hit shutout when he voiced displeasure with plate umpire Pat Hoberg. Verlander thought he had struck out Tommy Pham looking on a 2-2 fastball on the outside corner and Pham doubled on the next pitch.

Verlander had only four strikeouts at the time, so his streak of seven consecutive double-digit strikeout games was likely to end anyway. Verlander also might have inched ahead of teammate Gerrit Cole in the Cy Young race, at least until Cole pitches Wednesday:

Verlander: 16-5, 2.69 ERA, 184 IP, 243 SO, 33 HR
Cole: 15-5, 2.75 ERA, 163 ⅔ IP, 238 SO, 24 HR

(This is where we point out that Mike Minor actually leads Verlander in Baseball-Reference WAR, and Lance Lynn leads in FanGraphs WAR. Maybe it's more than two-pitcher race. Closer examination might be warranted.)

Don't forget Lucas Giolito in that discussion: The Twins beat Giolito and the White Sox 3-1, but the young right-hander had another superb game, allowing two runs in six innings with nine K's -- this being the Twins, both runs were via solo home runs, from Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Schoop, both in the second inning:

A good note here on Giolito's high volume of swing-and-misses of late:

Giolito is 14-7 with a 3.20 ERA but began the day fourth among AL starters in Baseball-Reference WAR (behind Minor, Verlander and Lynn) and fourth in FanGraphs WAR (behind Lynn, Morton and Cole). Giolito had two bad outings in July, and I was worried that maybe his first half was a fluke, but he has now had a string of six straight quality starts and eight in his past nine outings. Those concerns have been put to rest.

Matchup of the day: We'll get to Bryce Harper versus Felipe Vazquez in a moment. The Pirates scored the go-ahead run in the top off the ninth to take a 5-4 lead. Rather, the Phillies gave them the go-ahead run. Hector Neris walked two batters but appeared to get out of the inning with a double play -- except Rhys Hoskins dropped the throw from Jean Segura, the ball bounded away toward home plate and Adam Frazier scored from second base. An ugly, ugly run given up by the Phillies.

Bottom of the ninth, two outs, nobody on, and Harper is swinging with all his ferocity to try to tie the score. Vazquez goes 99 (swing and miss), 101 (swing and miss), 100 (outside), slider (outside), 101 (foul), 100 (foul) ... and then drops in a curveball:

I mean, that's just not fair. What a duel. Tough loss for the Phillies. (Oh, and Harper is hitting .179/.319/.354 with the bases empty and .341/.433/.668 with runners on.)