ST. LOUIS -- Beginning the season with the target that accompanies all defending World Series Champions, the Cardinals burst out of the gate, placing sufficient separation between them and the rest of the National League Central.
But injuries and deficiencies and adversity all hit to varying degrees, and that lead slowly morphed into a deficit. St. Louis will begin the second half looking up at the Pirates and the Reds. Yet this is a club on the mend, one undaunted by deficits and one prepared to address the areas that are lacking.
This is an organization that plans for the postseason, and it certainly seems set up to make such a push.
"It just doesn't seem like we've even hit our stride yet," manager Mike Matheny said. "You guys can call me the perpetual optimist if you'd like, but I still think our best baseball is in front of us. Those six-, eight-, 10-game winning streaks, there's no reason why this team shouldn't be able to do that."
The Cardinals will get an immediate boost with the return of Lance Berkman, who is expected off the disabled list within days. Out with a knee injury since May 19, Berkman went from suspecting his season was lost to beating his projected recovery time.
Berkman is the only position player currently on the Cardinals' DL, which, at one point in May, was nine names deep. Now, Matheny can begin to seriously plan how he'll divvy playing time with a healthy bunch. Consider the problem a luxury.
A bruised and banged up offense was still good enough to lead the National League in batting average and runs scored during the first half. Now, it's conceivable that Berkman -- a six-time All-Star -- returns as a part-time player, given how well Allen Craig has filled in.
In the least, the Cardinals have positioned themselves to have substantial offensive depth.
|MVP: Carlos Beltran He wasn't expected to replace Albert Pujols, but Beltran has brought that type of production so far.|
|Cy Young: Kyle Lohse Lohse, the team's Opening Day pitcher, has been the team's most consistent, even though the 'pen cost him some wins.|
|Rookie: Matt Carpenter Carpenter's versatility has been key, and he stepped up when several teammates went down with injuries.|
|Top reliever: Jason Motte This distinction could go to Mitchell Boggs, but Motte has been just as reliable in his first full season as a closer.|
With the offense already proven reliable, a repeat postseason push is likely to hinge on the pitching staff. And as it concerns pitching, the second half opens with several questions.
How will the first-half workload of Adam Wainwright, who missed the 2011 season, and Lance Lynn, who has never pitched a full season in the Majors, impact their late-season effectiveness? Can Jaime Garcia return from the disabled list, as scheduled, in August? And will he immediately upgrade the rotation? Will the Cardinals be able to swing a deal by the Trade Deadline for an impact starter?
And that's only as it concerns the rotation.
The bullpen will be a point of emphasis, as well, and likely the biggest variable. A 'pen that was dominant in April turned largely unreliable in May and June. The group had some bright spots in the week leading up to the All-Star break, but several unknowns remain.
"We have guys with, to me, above average stuff in our bullpen that shouldn't get hit like they have for a part of the season," Matheny said. "Hopefully, that'll change."
Part of the flux was due to a carousel of personnel changes. When offseason acquisitions J.C. Romero and Scott Linebrink proved ineffective and unavailable, the Cardinals had to scramble. Losing Lynn from that mix also threw a curve into the team's well-laid offseason plans
Neither Fernando Salas, nor Marc Rzepczynski, were able to handle late-inning situations as well as Matheny had anticipated, though both are encouraged by changes they made during the final week of the first half.
Improving the stability of the bullpen will also be among the goals general manager John Mozeliak tries to accomplish before the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Players to watch in second half
|Lance Berkman Expected back soon after the All-Star break, Berkman will be another veteran, offensive threat.|
|Lance Lynn Lynn's starting workload could be a concern and may force the Cardinals to move him to a bullpen role.|
|Marc Rzepczynski If Rzepczynski, the team's primary lefty, can find his footing, the Cardinals' bullpen will become much more settled.|
The 2011 Cardinals made their mark by making up significant second-half ground. This year's club would prefer not to follow that blueprint, and the Cardinals can pull their fate back into their own hands by taking advantage of all the games they have left to play against division rivals.
St. Louis and Cincinnati will meet nine more times this year -- including the first series after the break and the final series of the year. The latter will be at Busch Stadium.
The Cardinals have six more games scheduled against the Pirates. All will come during a 12-game span in August. In all, St. Louis plays 42 of its last 76 games against teams from the Central.
"We don't want to let the lead get any further from the guys up top," All-Star David Freese said. "They're playing good ball in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh right now. We have to stay afloat and stay right there."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.