Three keys to Cardinals taking division crown

After recent surge, trio of factors play into St. Louis sustaining success

Three keys to Cardinals taking division crown

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals ended the Brewers' 150-day reign atop the National League Central on Sept. 1 and haven't slipped out of pole positioning since, giving the club a clear view of its desired finish line as it prepares for the final two weeks of the regular season.

Seeking their first consecutive division titles since 2004-06, the Cards hold a 3 1/2-game cushion over the Pirates and a magic number of 10 with 12 games remaining. Their surge past the Brewers has been aided by a 12-4 run, the best 16-game stretch the team has had all season.

Here's a look at three factors behind the Cardinals' recent climb to the top of the NL Central and three keys in their quest to hold off the Pirates and Brewers for another two weeks:

Three keys to the recent run

Rest for the bullpen's weary: The Cardinals have leaned heavily on late-inning relievers Pat Neshek and Trevor Rosenthal, largely because the club has been involved in 74 games determined by two or fewer runs. But the reemergence of Carlos Martinez has given the Cards another setup option, allowing manager Mike Matheny to be more active in spelling rest for Neshek and Rosenthal. Since the All-Star break, Neshek has pitched on consecutive days just five times. Rosenthal hasn't pitched in three straight games at all during that span, and he's been sharper because of that.

Yadier Molina: While Molina has not made an overwhelming impact in the lineup, his presence behind the plate has made an immediate difference. It's not a coincidence that St. Louis is 12-4 in Molina's starts since recovering from thumb surgery. He has had a noticeable impact on a handful of pitchers in particular, mostly notably Martinez. Shelby Miller opened the month with back-to-back scoreless appearances during which he didn't shake off Molina once. Molina's return has also stalled opponents' running game.

Return of RISP success: While the Cardinals were never going to match their 2013 team average of .330 with runners in scoring position, the club's drop off was severe for a team that has been at or near the bottom in home run production all season. Over the past 16 games, the Cards have had more success stringing hits together and manufacturing runs still with little show of power. The club is hitting .356 with runners in scoring position during that span. That's a leap from the .241 average the team had in such situations up until that point.

Three keys to keeping it going

Miller: With questions surrounding Michael Wacha, who remains out indefinitely, and John Lackey, who had his next start bumped back, the Cardinals need Miller to -- like Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn -- be a reliable rotation member. Miller has recently reaped the benefits of throwing more curveballs and incorporating the sinker, and he's performing like a pitcher who does not want to be forgotten come October. With the other questions in the rotation, the Cards are going to need him to first help the team get there.

Right-field production: Though the Cardinals will finish the year with some of the Majors' lowest offensive numbers out of right field, Matheny has a chance to maximize his assets down the stretch. Randal Grichuk's success vs. left-handers gives the Cards a strong option when the matchup is right. Oscar Taveras still offers potential and has shown recently that he responds well to adversity. If Matheny can find the right times to work in both bats, he might finally have found a right-field situation that works.

Defense: With the Cardinals continuing to play tight games, they must continue to play well in the field. The Cards will enter the final two weeks leading the Majors with 60 Defensive Runs Saved this season, which has helped the club to a 28-21 record in one-run games. For a team that continues to operate with a near-even run differential, those runs saved by the fielders have helped win St. Louis several games.

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.