The Mathematics of a Comeback

Was last night's heroics by Albert Pujols the start of something special? (original image source: Chris Lee/Post Dispatch)

After last night’s stunning, inspirational, and improbable comeback with two outs in the ninth inning, the Cardinals find themselves 6.5 games behind Atlanta in the wild card and 7 games behind Milwaukee in the division. There are 18 games left in the Cardinals’ season.

More important to the Cards’ chances of winning either race is their ELIMINATION NUMBER, usually called the Magic Number (we won’t call it that here, since it wouldn’t be so magical to Cards fans). This involves any combination of Cards losses and their opponent’s victories.

For instance, the elimination number for the divisional race is 11; that means any combination of Brewer wins and Cardinal losses adding up to 11 would eliminate them from the race. In the wild card race, that elimination number is 12. Any combination of Atlanta wins and Cardinal losses equalling 12 will eliminate the Cards from the wild card race.

Can this happen? Sure … anything is possible in baseball. But how likely is it at this point? Let’s look at some numbers.

THE DIVISIONAL RACE

In their last 15 games, Milwaukee has been slumping somewhat. They have a 7-8 record, which translates into a .466 winning percentage. If we apply that percentage to their upcoming schedule (16 games left), We can expect them to win 8 more games this season. To have a chance, the Cardinals will need to go 15-3 the rest of the way to avoid elimination and catch Milwaukee. We haven’t seen anything like that from this team yet.

THE WILD CARD RACE

Atlanta has been slumping even worse than the Brewers of late. In their last 15 games, Atlanta is 6-9 (a .400 winning percentage). Atlanta has 17 more games in the season (including two more with the Cards). If Atlanta follows their latest trend, we can expect them to win 7 more games this season. That would force the Cardinals to go 14-4 the rest of the way. Again, we haven’t seen that kind of action from this team yet.

DO THEY HAVE A SHOT?

It certainly helps the Cardinals that they have this late-season showdown with the Braves. It gives them something of an opportunity to determine their own fate. However, the Cardinals’ schedule isn’t easy the rest of the way, including four games against the Phillies, the current cream of the National League.

The numbers say that it’s too little, too late for the 2011 Cardinals. They would almost need to instantly transform into a completely different team overnight to have a realistic shot. Meanwhile, a perfect storm of collapse would need to hit either Milwaukee or Atlanta to aid the Cardinals’ cause.

This scenario happens rarely, but it does occur. The most recent example was the 2007 collapse of the New York Mets, who had a 7 game lead on September 12th before going on an epic losing streak that cost them the division. And, of course, Cardinal fans fondly remember the collapse of the 1964 Phillies, who led by 6.5 games with 12 remaining and lost almost all of them to give the division to the Cardinals. The Cards went on to win that World Series.

Last night’s win was electrifying and inspiring, but we have yet to see momentum affect this club. If there was any single game and any moment in time for these guys to finally put the pieces together, last night was it. Let’s see what a little magic can do to their magic number in these final seconds of the season.

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