ST. LOUIS -- With the disclaimer that the season is still young, the Cardinals, in putting the finishing touches on a nine-win homestand with Thursday's 5-1 win over the Cubs, have put the rest of the National League Central on notice -- and in pursuit.
Over a nine day-span, the Cardinals took their one-game lead in the division and enlarged it to 6 1/2 with series wins over Pittsburgh and Chicago. It marked the first nine-win homestand for the club since 2002, when that team pulled off a similar May run en route to winning 97 games and running away with a division title.
The Cardinals aren't looking that far ahead. But they may be looking back at this stretch later and pointing to it as the start of something special. Seven of the nine wins were come-from-behind victories; six were determined by three or fewer runs.
"I saw a toughness in some big situations that you don't necessarily see," manager Mike Matheny said. "Sometimes you're waiting around to August to see that group that grinds. It's nice to see it early. That's the bar. That's what it should look like."
The bullpen was exceptional while carrying a heavy load, posting a 1.01 ERA over 44 2/3 innings. The unit went a combined 6-0 while asking relievers to shoulder new roles -- from Miguel Socolovich making three scoreless appearances upon being called up to Seth Maness collecting his second save when Trevor Rosenthal needed a rest.
"We just enjoy being together and seeing each other succeed," Rosenthal said. "I think the model we've shown through this year is that we've shown we can encourage each other and keep pushing one another to get better. We're just happy to see the guy in front of us do well and the guys behind us do well."
The rotation showed some cracks sans Adam Wainwright, but the offense found another gear after Matheny enacted his first substantial batting order shuffle of the season after his club dropped the first game of the homestand. In 10 games since, the offense has averaged 5.9 runs per game while hitting .296/.371/.422.
Contributions were widespread, too. Bench players Tony Cruz and Mark Reynolds delivered game-winning hits, while reserve outfielder Peter Bourjos went 9-for-19 with six runs scored. On Thursday, the Cardinals cruised to a win with their two- and three-hole hitters (Matt Carpenter and Matt Holliday) never seeing the field.
"We have a lot of pieces moving, a lot of guys doing what they need to be doing," Matheny said. "We're watching other players step up. It's a group of players who can be really moved around a lot of different places."