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Mets come home to face Cardinals in another Wild Card battle

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New York won its fight with the Fish, but there is still much more work to do when it comes to the postseason race.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Mets accomplished their mission in Miami over the weekend with wins in two of three games against the Marlins to draw even with their rivals in the loss column. Next up is another three-game battle with a National League Wild Card contender, but this is one the Mets are decidedly less familiar with.

Last year, the St. Louis Cardinals won 100 games as well as the Central division despite being without their ace right-hander Adam Wainwright for most of the year due to an Achilles injury. After being defeated in the NLDS by the Cubs, St. Louis was shoved out of the baseball spotlight over the winter when Chicago won the bidding for Jason Heyward and proclaimed itself one of the favorites to win the 2016 World Series.

Indeed, the Cubs have been awesome, but the Cardinals have hung around while overcoming injuries to key players like Lance Lynn (out of the season with Tommy John Surgery) and Matt Carpenter (strained oblique, could return in early August). To find out more about how the Redbirds have navigated their tumultuous campaign, I've enlisted the help of John Fleming from the wonderful Cardinals blog Viva El Birdos.

With the trade deadline fast approaching, I asked John about how the St. Louis front office plans to improve the team for the stretch run. Even though they're half a game behind the Mets in the Wild Card race, the Cardinals boast a superior run differential at plus-95. Is that enough to convince upper management that the club is good enough as currently constructed?

For the most part, GM John Mozeliak has focused on relatively minor deals at the deadline, and this year will probably continue that trend. I would be surprised if the Cardinals trade for a two-month rental unless they can swing one in exchange for a non-prospect.

Recent Cardinals teams have been built around several good players rather than a few great players. While this helps the Cardinals survive injuries, it also makes it harder for them to find substantial upgrades. But even if they could, they are realistically shooting for a Wild Card spot, and trading a major prospect for a rental just doesn't make a lot of sense when the Cardinals could only play in one playoff game. But once Matt Carpenter, Brandon Moss, and Jhonny Peralta return, the Cardinals should have a formidable roster regardless of deadline moves.

Just like how the Mets of 2015 got a boost in September when David Wright returned to the lineup, the Cardinals will have quite the intimidating offense once Carpenter returns to the lineup. After all, he's only hitting .298/.420/.568 with 14 home runs this year. A less obvious contributor is Moss, who has always been a capable slugger but this season boasts a career-high .311 isolated power. He's a very important part of the lineup, especially with his replacement Matt Adams struggling to get on base in the middle of the order.

Cardinals offense

Peralta, on the other hand, is probably someone that St. Louis can take its time with. It's not that the veteran shortstop will likely continue to bat .221/.258/.416 after returning from a thumb injury. Those numbers were collected in a small sample size, anyway, after Peralta missed the first two months of the season due to surgery on that same thumb.

Rather, the Cardinals have a better option at shortstop in Aledmys Diaz, the 25-year-old who qualified for the All-Star Game and is in the running for Rookie of the Year. He's not a defensive whiz, but by hitting .315/.382/.521 with 13 home runs and a 13-percent strikeout rate, Diaz is a huge reason for St. Louis's success in 2016. Naturally, I asked John how the rookie sensation is having so much success after such a modest performance at Double-A Springfield in 2015.

Aledmys Diaz always had his share of believers among Cardinals fans, but I don't think anybody could have possibly expected this level of production. And while I don't expect that he will quite maintain his first-half performance, just because it's hard to ignore his lack of track record before this season, there is reason to buy into his performance to a degree. He is showing good plate discipline and is hitting for surprising power. While his defensive metrics haven't been great, there was no expectation for him to provide a ton in the field, and he has been cutting down on his errors a bit as the season has progressed.

The Cardinals will have a lot of infield options to choose from once Carpenter and Peralta are fully healthy again, but none of those options include sitting down Diaz. The infielders who have to prove themselves in this upcoming series include Kolten Wong, who was sent to the minors earlier this year and has seen his power drop significantly, as well as Jedd Gyorko, the former San Diego prospect who appears to have improved his approach at the plate with his new club.

It's like John said. When St. Louis is healthy, the team is made up of a lot of good players. We haven't even talked about Stephen Piscotty in this spot! At the same time, though, I'm sure the Cardinals would love to have a great player like Carpenter back in the mix so they don't have to count on Wong turning his season around or Gyorko continuing his miniature renaissance.

Mets offense

Just like St. Louis, the Mets appear to have too many players for too few jobs right now. In Miami, Jose Reyes further cemented his place at the top of the order with a brilliant performance on Friday night. He collected three hits while scoring two runs and driving one in to lead New York to a key victory. Reyes only went 2-for-10 combined in the next two games, but one of those hits was an RBI triple on Sunday that plated the game-winning run in a 3-0 win.

It's awesome to see the guy who was such a hero for Mets fans in the 2000s return to his original team and play such a big role, but until Reyes gets his on-base percentage to an acceptable level, there have to be questions about whether he is New York's best option at third base.

Meanwhile, in the outfield, Michael Conforto got his first ever start in center field on Sunday, and it went surprisingly well. Not only did he make a terrific diving play to save a base hit, but the Mets didn't allow any runs during the defensive debut. Perhaps even more important, though, is that Conforto did what he is paid to do and got a couple of base hits in his only two plate appearances. Adding in a pinch-hit single from Saturday night, and the sophomore outfielder is starting to make the case to become a lineup regular again. He's going to keep getting playing time if he continues to hit, but where that playing time comes is something for Terry Collins and company to figure out.

Probable pitchers

Date Time Television Cardinals Probable Starter Mets Probable Starter
July 25, 2016 7:10 PM SNY Carlos Martinez Noah Syndergaard
July 26, 2016 7:10 PM SNY Jaime Garcia Bartolo Colon
July 27, 2016 7:10 PM SNY Adam Wainwright Logan Verrett
Carlos Martinez

Important stats: 114.1 IP, 96 K, 37 BB, 8 HR, 2.83 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 1.13 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (96 mph), two-seam fastball (95 mph), curveball (85 mph), changeup (87 mph)

Although Martinez's strikeout rate has dipped a bit from last year's very strong campaign, the 24-year-old is also getting more ground balls and walking fewer opponents than he used to. I asked John if this version of Martinez is the best one yet.

I'm not sure that the 2016 version of Carlos Martinez is "better" than the 2015 version, but the fact that he has sustained this success into his second full-time year as a starter is certainly reassuring. He faced more than his share of skepticism about his long-term viability and nothing he has done to this point should make anyone believe he will not continue to have success going forward.

Martinez's improved walk and ground ball rates are a sign of progress, as it is easier to imagine Martinez aging well once the velocity on which he has been somewhat reliant begins to dissipate. He is still living dangerously with his runners left on base rates, and while he may not be able to keep up an 80-percent LOB rate, his increasingly refined pitching profile may mitigate that regression.

Mets opponent: During his last start, Noah Syndergaard did a great job pacing the Mets to a big 2-1 win over the Cubs. He only lasted five-and-two-thirds innings, but did so while striking out eight batters, walking two, and allowing just one unearned run. Instead of exiting with arm fatigue, Syndergaard left the game due to his pitch count, which had reach 105 despite the solid performance. St. Louis is going to be another strict test for the right-hander, but we know that Thor loves a challenge.

Jaime Garcia

Important stats: 113.0 IP, 93 K, 40 BB, 11 HR, 3.98 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 1.36 WHIP

Favorite pitches: two-seam fastball (90 mph), four-seam fastball (91 mph), changeup (82 mph), slider (82 mph)

The often-injured Garcia has been on the mound consistently in 2016, and his 58-percent ground ball rate has him in good shape to challenge his career high of 194.2 innings pitched that was set in 2011. I asked John about the expectations for Garcia, who has become a starter that you don't expect to get a full workload from.

Jaime Garcia has stayed healthy this season, which given his history has been a victory in and of itself. Garcia's performance hasn't quite been up to career standards on a rate basis, but he has been an adequate member of the rotation. He has had a few terrific performances (his 97 Game Score on April 14 is tied for second best for any start in MLB this season) but has also not quite established a level of consistent dominance that the team could certainly use.

Mets opponent: Just like with the Cardinals and Garcia, the Mets are happy to get as much from Colon as they can. Most human bodies were not built to perform this effectively at age 43, but this charismatic right-hander keeps plugging away. In that way, Colon is like the Millennium Falcon: he doesn't look like much, but he's got it where it counts. Anyway, the old man of the pitching staff has been hit very hard by the Cubs and Nationals in two of his last three outings, but as a control pitcher, it makes sense to expect more of Colon against weaker lineups that get themselves out. The problem is, the Cardinals are not one of those lineups.

Adam Wainwright

Important stats: 125.1 IP, 99 K, 31 BB, 8 HR, 4.09 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 1.26 WHIP

Favorite pitches: cutter (85 mph), curveball (74 mph), sinker (90 mph), four-seam fastball (90 mph)

Following the Achilles injury that severely shortened his 2015 season, Wainwright didn't look like the same pitcher that dominated the senior circuit from 2009 to 2014. However, as John notes, the veteran right-hander has been quite effective lately.

As for Adam Wainwright, while his season started poorly, he has turned his season around dramatically. Since the beginning of June, Wainwright has made nine starts and has put up a 2.37 ERA and 1.98 FIP. Since his 2015 injury was an Achilles injury as opposed to something arm-related, it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that it does not appear to have caused any long-term damage, but few anticipated that Wainwright could regain his footing to pitch as well as he has ever pitched.

Mets opponent: In previous starts, Logan Verrett has left Mets fans wondering if he might cost the team a spot in the postseason. However, for the second straight time on Friday night, he was decidedly decent on the mound. Against a strong Miami lineup, Verrett got through five-and-one-third innings and allowed two runs. With just one walk allowed in each of his last two outings, Verrett has shown that he's a capable starter when his stuff is under control. As a guy who doesn't miss many bats, Verrett can't afford to walk multiple batters like he has when he has struggled this year.

Bullpens

Trevor Rosenthal entered this season as one of the top closers in baseball, but he's battled through some surprising control issues and has since been demoted in favor of South Korean import Seung Hwan Oh. I asked John about the mid-season switch in closers.

Trevor Rosenthal has always lived on the edge with his control. His walk rates have never been optimal but when you're striking out guys as often as he has, you can live with it. But he has more than doubled his 2015 walk rate. But in additional to that somewhat obvious statistical outlier, Our resident pitching expert Joe Schwarz has analyzed Rosenthal's pitch locations and has noted that Rosenthal has lost some of his ability to locate pitches high in the strike zone, and has not thrown his changeup as much as he has in his more successful past.

It's been a strange season for Hansel Robles, who seems to bounce back and forth between being a potential closer of the future and being unfit to pitch the seventh inning. Lately, he looks like more of the former with zero runs allowed during 10 innings in July. He was especially splendid on Sunday, when he struck out two batters in a perfect seventh inning to help polish off the Marlins. Perhaps the best part about this month is that Robles has only walked two batters, as the free passes have gotten in the way of him being consistently effective. Even though Robles is an extreme fly ball pitcher, he has only allowed five home runs all year.

Prediction: Mets win two of three.

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