ST. LOUIS -- Despite a first half dotted with injuries and a stinging finish in Pittsburgh, the Cardinals rode sensational pitching to a Major League-high 56 wins and will enter the second half having led the National League Central for the last 100 days.
Their sights remain even higher, however, as this is a club seeking a third straight division title, a fifth consecutive trip to the NL Championship Series and a third visit to the World Series in five years.
As the Cards ready for the 73 games that remain until the postseason, here is a look back at how they jumped in front in the NL Central and what questions remain as they pursue another run to and through October
FIVE KEY DEVELOPMENTS
1. Stalwart starters
Even without its ace, the Cardinals' rotation has not only been the best in baseball, but it's been one of the best in franchise history. With key contributions from Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez, John Lackey and Jaime Garcia, the rotation has posted the Cards' lowest first-half ERA (2.84) since 1968.
3. A Busch bash
No team has made more of the home-field advantage than the Cardinals, whose .738 winning percentage at Busch Stadium tops all teams. The Cards went 11-2-1 in their 14 home series during the first half. They enjoyed two home winning streaks of at least eight games.
4. On-and-off offense
The offense never gained the same traction that the pitching did. The Cardinals rank 19th in the Majors with an average of 3.99 runs per game, 25th in home runs (69), and seventh in batting average (.257).
5. Gone streaking
The Cardinals built a sizeable NL Central lead early by reeling off several extended winning streaks. They enjoyed seven streaks of at least four games -- five of which went to at least five consecutive wins. The Cards tallied a season-best eight straight wins from April 28 to May 5.
FIVE STORYLINES TO WATCH
1. Those pesky Pirates
By winning three of four against the Cardinals to close the first half, the Pirates pulled to within 2 1/2 games of the Cards. It's the smallest division lead the Cardinals have had since May 23, and the clubs have nine head-to-head games on tap in the second half. The Cards held off the Bucs in September each of the past two seasons, but can they do so again?
2. Deal or no deal?
With two weeks remaining until the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, general manager John Mozeliak will have to soon decide whether to go outside the organization for a boost or wait for several regulars to get healthy. The Cardinals have shown interest in improving their starting pitching depth, and they may also be in the market for an upgrade at first base or another left-handed bat off the bench.
3. Getting healthy
The Cardinals expect to get four key players -- Holliday, Walden, Garcia and Belisle -- back before the end of July. They hope Jay comes back to make an impact in the second half, as well. Getting healthy should help the Cards fill several holes, but the club also needs to stay healthy to keep from creating new ones.
4. More wood from Carpenter
It was a tale of two halves for Matt Carpenter over the season's first three months. He hit .333/.403/.620 with 20 extra-base hits in 27 games before missing time with extreme fatigue. In 56 games since, Carpenter tallied just 11 extra-base hits and struck out 53 times. He showed signs of regaining his early-season form as the first half closed, and he could provide a huge boost to the offense if he does.
5. Innings coverage
The Cardinals have said they don't want Wacha or Martinez to throw 200 innings this season, which means the organization will have to slow down each right-hander's pace. That will likely require skipping starts for both. A healthy Marco Gonzales could be one fill-in option. Whatever the Cards do, it will be with an eye of saving innings for Martinez and Wacha so they're sharp in October.
MVP: Jhonny Peralta. An up-and-down offense has received consistent production from Peralta, who leads the team in home runs (13), RBIs (46) and extra-base hits (33) at the break. Cy Young Award: Martinez: Wacha would be another deserving option, but Martinez leads the current starting staff in ERA (2.52), made 14 quality starts and is one of two Cardinals starters with 10 wins (Wacha is the other). Rookie: Mitch Harris. Harris became the first graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy to appear in the Majors when he debuted on April 25, and he has gone on to post a 3.10 ERA over 19 appearances during two stints with the team. Top reliever: Trevor Rosenthal. Despite a weekend hiccup, Rosenthal has been as dominant as any closer in the league. He's been scored upon in just five of his 41 appearances and has saved 26 games in 28 chances.
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN SECOND HALF
Garcia: His impact will hinge on whether he can stay healthy. Garcia was dominant over seven first-half starts (1.69 ERA), but he missed the start of the season with a shoulder issue and was back on the DL in July with a groin strain. Carpenter: Since opening the season strong, Carpenter has sputtered. The Cardinals need more from their two-hole hitter than what he has produced since he was sidelined. Martinez: Martinez has already thrown more innings in the first half (107 1/3) than he did last season (89 1/3). That means the club is going to closely monitor his second-half workload.