It could just be for the day, or maybe it'll be for the rest of the month, but the St. Louis Cardinals awoke Tuesday exactly where so many of us expected them to be this season:
Alone in first place in the National League Central.
The NL Central is a legit three-team race, with the streaky Brewers capable of rattling off a series of wins at any given point and those persistent Pirates -- St. Louis' opponent the next two nights -- looming not far behind. One cannot overstate the emotional swings and sways that have become par for the course in such a deep and demanding division.
But as the Cardinals get whole -- Yadier Molina returned to the lineup over the weekend, and Michael Wacha's return to the rotation is imminent -- one gets the sense that they, with all apologies to Dennis Green, are who we thought they were.
Yes, their offense was slow to arrive; their much-touted pitching depth was tested and -- in some instances -- supplanted with outside help; they traded away their Game 1 cleanup hitter (Allen Craig) and their Game 3 starter (Joe Kelly) from last year's World Series; and the injury bug bit in a significant way this summer.
None of that really matters, though, if the Cards get and stay hot at the right time and once again establish themselves as an elite October ballclub.
And they just might.
At the risk of reading too much into smallish samples, this club is averaging 4.43 runs per game with a .735 team OPS since Aug. 1. Compare that to a 3.67 average (only the Padres scored fewer runs on average) and .687 OPS in the season's first four months, and one can imagine manager Mike Matheny and hitting coach John Mabry are sleeping a little more soundly at night. Matt Holliday has 12 RBIs in the last three games and has clearly shaken off his disappointing first half (.265/.373/.389 slash line) to rebound in the second (.278/.363/.536). Another veteran, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, has also taken his performance up a notch (.783 OPS in the first half, .845 in the second) to supply an unusual amount of power and productivity from his position.
But the real key to the recent surge might be Jon Jay. At a time when the Cardinals empowered and entrusted Oscar Taveras with the regular starting duties in the hope that he'd find his footing at the big league level, Jay has actually been the one who has looked capable of filling the No. 2 spot where Matheny has struggled to find consistency. Jay has hit .371 with a .461 on-base percentage in the second half, and, on the whole, he's made last season and last winter, when the Cards brought in Peter Bourjos to replace him in center field, little more than a hazy memory.
Molina is, of course, another potentially big factor as the Cardinals look to stabilize their new position in the standings. He's 6-for-his-first-17 since coming off the disabled list on Friday, and the Cards sorely missed his intellect and impact both behind and at the plate. With Molina out with a broken thumb since early July, A.J. Pierzynski, Tony Cruz and George Kottaras hit a combined .209/.267/.263. Worse, they threw out just three of 29 would-be basestealers. A catcher's influence behind the plate is ultimately difficult to ascertain, but it bears mentioning that Cardinals' starting pitchers had a 4.61 ERA with Molina gone, and it bears monitoring how much that tally will improve in the coming weeks.
Granted, it's the possible pending return of Wacha that is the bigger deal for the rotation's overall outlook.
The struggle of the rotation since Wacha landed on the DL with a stress reaction in his throwing shoulder June 17 was what prompted general manager John Mozeliak to make midseason swaps for John Lackey and Justin Masterson, and Adam Wainwright's recent "dead arm" period only exacerbated the issue.
The Cardinals were simply unable to fix Masterson. His 7.90 ERA in six starts for St. Louis has further cratered his free-agent value and sent him to the 'pen, while Lackey, save one brutal start in Baltimore, has been about what the Cards expected -- a steady supplier of quality innings. Ultimately, though, the rotation is only going to get as far as Wainwright and Wacha takes it.
Wainwright threw 276 1/3 innings last year between the regular season and postseason, so fatigue was practically penciled into his outlook for 2014. His public acknowledgment of the issue after a series of eight starts in which he logged a 4.68 ERA (after posting a 1.83 mark in his first 19 starts) was taken as a signal that he believes it is nearly in the rearview. We'll see how Wainwright responds Tuesday night against the Bucs.
Wacha, meanwhile, encourages cautious optimism that he can impact the bottom line this month, perhaps as early as this week. He tossed two scoreless innings for Double-A Springfield on Sunday in his first rehab appearance since the June shutdown, and the Cardinals were deciding whether to continue that rehab at Triple-A Memphis (the club qualified for the Pacific Coast League postseason) or stretch him out in the bigs. It's a touchy situation for the Cardinals, because shoulder issues require the utmost care and caution, while Wacha, who had a 2.79 ERA in 15 starts before the injury, is so important to their immediate bottom line.
The bottom line with this Cards team is that it's potentially peaking at a pivotal point. I still have concerns about their bullpen, where Trevor Rosenthal's sophomore struggles have been but one part of the problem, but Jason Motte could help when he returns from a back injury, Masterson might fit better in a relief role and perhaps Kevin Siegrist sorted out his command woes with a two-week Triple-A stay. And I certainly have concerns that the offense could go ice cold again.
The thing is, all of these NL Central teams have some sort of discernible flaw, which is why none of them has been able to run away with the division. When healthy, the Cardinals have the depth of talent to overcome their flaws, and they're finally getting back to that point.
They woke Tuesday in first place, and we could see them there regularly in the coming weeks.