On the eve of their regular-season opener, I came upon maybe a dozen Cards dining together at a Miami Beach restaurant. To have so many players in one place spoke volumes about the team's closeness. And that closeness, that chemistry, that belief in one another, is the intangible strength of the 2012 Cardinals.
Yes, there might have been some resentment over the perception they were a supporting cast for Pujols. Manager Mike Matheny spoke of that very thing during Spring Training. If the Cards felt that way, they weren't about to say so publicly.
"That's not how we think," Matt Holliday said.
So here we are, 41 games into the season, and the Cardinals are being tested in a way they never thought they'd be tested. Their 20-11 start has dissolved into a 2-8 freefall. A division lead that was stretched to four games is down to a half-game. And the Redbirds have a stunning number of injuries.
Lance Berkman was to have an MRI on his right knee Monday that was expected to confirm a preliminary diagnosis that he has torn the anterior cruciate ligament. Carlos Beltran missed three starts last week with a sore knee. Jon Jay, Allen Craig and Kyle McClellan are on the disabled list.
Chris Carpenter hasn't pitched a game this season because of shoulder weakness, and Adam Wainwright has gone through the usual bumps in returning from Tommy John surgery. In this 2-8 stretch, the Cards have gotten just three quality starts, one apiece from Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia and rookie Lance Lynn.
Meanwhile, the bullpen that performed so well down the stretch last season has been scored upon in 12 of its past 13 appearances.
So where do the Cardinals start as they return to Busch Stadium for a seven-game homestand against the Padres and Phillies?
First things first. If Berkman is indeed gone for the season, it's a tough blow to the fabric of the clubhouse. In two seasons, he'd fit in perfectly, his easygoing personality playing well over a long season.
Without Berkman, more of the leadership responsibilities will fall elsewhere, to Holliday and Rafael Furcal, and to Yadier Molina. The Cards still have plenty of experience and all of that, but it could be a quieter room without Berkman.
Beltran's availability becomes more critical than ever. General manager John Mozeliak felt reasonably confident about replacing Pujols as long as he had a healthy Holliday, Beltran and Berkman in the middle of his lineup.
It'll be fascinating to see how things evolve. David Freese returns home in a 3-for-34 slump, and with Jay and Craig out, St. Louis has very little margin for error.
The Cardinals' offense averaged 4.3 runs per game during the 2-8 stretch, but if Freese gets straightened out, if Craig and Jay return soon, if Holliday and Beltran stay on the field, the Cards should score enough runs.
It's the pitching that's probably keeping Matheny up at night. Wainwright has had some very solid games, and some in which he has looked very much like a guy still recovering from elbow surgery. Likewise, the others have had some very good stretches mixed with some worrisome ones.
Just one St. Louis starter has completed seven innings in the past 10 games -- that would be Garcia -- and so the bullpen has been taxed. If you're wondering about trades, don't. We're not to that point in our regularly scheduled programming yet.
Besides, even if Mozeliak were ready to deal, there's no way he could go out and get a middle-of-the-order bat, a reliable starting pitcher and a quality reliever. With the National League Central race unlikely to get away from the Cardinals, he'll have the time to watch his club play, to see how youngsters like Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams perform, and then to more narrowly define his needs.
In some ways, it's an exciting time for Cards fans. It's not exciting in the way they hoped it would be. But in Adams, Carpenter, Lynn, etc., they're getting the first glimpses of the guys who could be the nucleus of the franchise for years to come. These isn't the circumstances St. Louis would have preferred, but it's an indication of the quality depth the organization has amassed.
When Pujols departed for the Angels, Mozeliak and his front office took a few hours to catch their breaths and remind themselves that they still had talent and a chance to win again. Even with all the injuries, even with the disappointing performances on the pitching staff, the Cardinals are still in first place. They still have a bunch of players with a history of performing well on the game's biggest stage.
Matheny's immediate goal is to get his players to focus on what the Cards still have instead of what they don't. It's not the rookie season he would have wished for, but don't great competitors love great challenges?
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.