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The Cards' Biggest Game of the Year?

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Today is that big red exclamation point. Just so you know. 
On Friday night, the Cardinals laid a real egg against the Pittsburgh Pirates, getting shut down by James McDonald and losing by the score of 2-1. It was an ugly showing for a club coming in to one of their biggest series of the year; the Cards did exactly what they couldn't afford to do and came out flat against a team they desperately needed to beat. 

Yesterday afternoon, the Cards returned the favor to the Buccos and gained a small measure of revenge as they grabbed a come-from-behind win in a very tight game, exactly the sort of game this team has mostly lost again and again all season. Lance Lynn struggled for most of his time on the mound -- and it wasn't all that long, unfortunately -- but fought through, gutting his way into the fifth inning when it looked like the fourth would be his undoing. Jason Motte had juuust enough to hold on, giving up a run but recording a critical strikeout of Garrett Jones when he needed it most. It wasn't pretty, but it got the job done. 

As a reward for winning one of their biggest games of the season, a game they needed to win to avoid falling even further behind the team they're chasing in the standings, the Cards get to play another one today, another game that is, if anything, even more fraught with importance for the Redbirds. 

Today just might be the biggest game of the season for the Cardinals. 

There are a couple reasons I say this might be the biggest game of the year for the Cards. First is the simple math of the thing. As it stands this morning, the Pirates hold a one game lead over the Cardinals for second place in the NL Central and the second Wild Card spot. Tied with the Pirates is a whole lot better than being two games down. It's getting mighty late in the season to still be losing games you should be winning, and falling further behind the competition. 

Secondly, besides just the deficit the Cardinals may or may not be facing, the fact is they don't see the Pirates much more this season. After today's game, the Redbirds have one more three game series with Pittsburgh, and that series is, unfortunately, in PNC Park, where the Pirates have been tough to beat this year. They have a 37-23 record at home, versus a two-games-below-.500 record of 29-31 on the road. The Cards just aren't going to have many more chances to play the Pirates head to head, and the few chances they do still have aren't very favorable. It's always easier to catch a team if you actually get to play them; the Redbirds need to take advantage of today's game to get even if at all possible. 

Third, and somewhat less easy to define, is what the return of Jaime Garcia could mean for this team down the stretch. There isn't a quick number I can quote you to express what effect Jaime might have, but that doesn't mean his return isn't a huge deal. 

That's not to say the Cards can't survive without him; Joe Kelly did a perfectly cromulent job filling in for Garcia while the lefty was on the shelf. If Jaime were to come back and just not be up to the task, it wouldn't be inconceivable that the Cards could survive without him again. 

Possibly a worse scenario would be for Garcia to come back and just be sort of...meh. If he looks healthy, the Cardinals are going to put him out there. If he isn't good, though, he could end up hurting the team even if he really is sound enough to take the mound every fifth day. 

If he's good, though...oh, if he's good. Jaime Garcia has shown at times in his career the ability to pitch like one of the better starters in all of baseball. He hasn't consistently held quite that level of quality, by any means, but there have been stretches where Jaime has performed like an ace. Actually, let me correct that. Like an Ace. You can hear the capital letter when you say it; I should write it that way. If Jaime Garcia comes back and pitches anything like he did, say, the first two months of 2011, the boost he could offer the Cards is tough to overestimate. He could be that X factor that changes this team's fortunes, really. 

So that's what the Cardinals have on their plate today. They're running out of time period, and specifically running out of games against the team they're chasing. Finishing this series in a tie with the Pirates would set things up very differently than ending two games down, with only three head-to-head matchups left. On top of that, the return of Jaime Garcia has the potential to be a much bigger story the rest of the way than what the standings look like this time tomorrow. 

It's hard to ever say a game in the middle of August is the biggest of the year; there's just so much time left that plenty of things could happen between now and the end of the season. But considering the implications today's game could have on the standings, not to mention seeing what the team's talented lefty looks like as he rejoins the team, I don't think it's particularly hyperbolic to say this might be the most important game the Cardinals have played yet this year. 

Now let's all hope they play like it's the biggest game of the year. 

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