By Bernie Miklasz
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
In their final competition before the ever-so-late All-Star Game, the Cardinals won Sunday at Pittsburgh in an effort that defined their first-half character.
It was undoubtedly a challenge to rebound so quickly from Saturday night's disastrous loss, the worst of the season. Sunday, the Cardinals didn't always play well. They had to overcome turmoil. But they battled through and prevailed 11-6 despite blowing two leads.
The Cardinals salvaged a 3-3 record on the Pennsylvania trip. They made sure that they'd go into the break with a 53-43 record, or 10 games over .500. They gained ground on the first-place Cubs, and trail by 4 1/2 games. They warded off Milwaukee in the wild-card standings and lead the Brewers by a half-game.
Manager Tony La Russa has said often this season, probably because it's so true: He doesn't know if his team will be good enough to make it to the postseason, but he's convinced that it's tough enough.
This team has problems.
The bullpen has frequently imploded. The relievers have been shredded for the most blown saves (22) in the majors and have the second-highest loss total (20).
Because of injury issues — and more on that later — nine pitchers have started games.
Partly because of shortages, rookie Cardinals pitchers have been called upon to make 91 appearances, and start seven games.
The St. Louis offense is streaky. Its on-base percentage has suffered a 21-point drop since May 20, going from .371 to .350. The slugging percentage is rising, and that's good, except for the increasing dependence on homers to supply runs.
It is an offense that scores 5.2 runs a game on the road but only 4.1 a game at Busch Stadium, which wasn't much of a firewall in the late stages of the first half. The Cardinals have lost seven of their last 10 at Busch and must reverse that trend.
bullet E-Mail Bernie
bullet Sound Off in Bernie's Press Box
bullet Sound Off in Cards Talk
bullet More Bernie columns
The Cardinals are 31-31 since May 7, and their competitors have taken advantage. The Cubs are 15 games over .500 since May 9, and the Brewers are 13 games over .500 since May 20.
And unlike the Cardinals, the Cubs (Rich Harden) and Brewers (CC Sabathia) have reinforced their rosters.
Now, let's rewind, back to March.
How many among us would have honestly predicted that the Cardinals would be 10 games over .500 at the break and possess the NL's second-best record?
Or that the Cardinals could make these advances despite having to put 17 players on the disabled list, including team MVP Albert Pujols, No. 1 starter Adam Wainwright and all-time franchise saves leader Jason Isringhausen?
The rehabbing former Cy Young award winner, Chris Carpenter, hasn't thrown a pitch. Offseason signee Matt Clement (shoulder) hasn't surfaced because of decreased velocity. Mark Mulder sadly unraveled again.
And yet the Cardinals have defied the adversity and the forecasts to grind their way into postseason contention. And this was supposed to be a season of rebuilding, retooling, revamping, etc.
Several reasons, in no particular order:
1. Pitching coach Dave Duncan's rotation has surprisingly held up for a 40-23 record and a 4.13 ERA. Year after year, Duncan squeezes terrific results from makeshift rotations.
2. Kyle Lohse, who hasn't lost since May 8, is 11-2 with a 3.39 ERA.
3. Breakout power seasons from Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel, who have combined for 41 homers and 115 RBIs. Last season Cardinals outfielders produced 68 homers in 162 games. This year, through 96 games, the outfielders already have launched 53 homers.
4. Third baseman Troy Glaus has 15 homers and 59 RBIs in 94 games played. Last season the Cardinals received only 12 homers and 77 RBIs from seven players who manned the third-base position over 162 games.
5. Dramatically improved defense.
Don't forget Aaron Miles, batting .317. Or Skip Schumaker, who has done a fine job as a leadoff man and is hitting .339 against righthanded pitching. Or catcher Yadier Molina's impressive development as a hitter; he's batting .339 since April 23.
Of course, La Russa is the fixed axis. All things Cardinal revolve around him. He gives this team its toughness, its personality.
At the break, the Cardinals should exhale and take a bow.
And then it's back to work.