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St. Louis Cardinals: 5 Reasons They're off to a Great Start in 2012

Kenneth HicksCorrespondent IIApril 30, 2012

St. Louis Cardinals: 5 Reasons They're off to a Great Start in 2012

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    The St. Louis Cardinals are off to great start in 2012. With a 14-8 record they sit in first place in the National League Central.

    Most sports fans have forgotten about the Cardinals' extraordinary start, as it was overshadowed this past weekend by the 2012 NFL Draft and the 2012 NBA Playoffs.

    After winning the 2011 World Series, the Cardinals lost manager Tony La Russa to retirement and slugger Albert Pujols to free agency.

    Even worse for the Cardinals, their ace pitcher Chris Carpenter is on the disabled list until June and co-ace Adam Wainwright is coming off Tommy John surgery. 

    However, the Cardinals have proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they can still pitch, hit and coach their way to be one of the top NL teams for the entire year.

The New Pitching Aces

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    There has been a trio of St. Louis Cardinals pitchers that have drastically stepped up their games as ace pitcher Adam Wainwright is a little rusty, getting off to a 0-3 start recovering from Tommy John surgery.

    The first pitcher that has really stepped up as an ace for this staff is 33-year-old Kyle Lohse. Lohse is 4-0 with a 1.62 ERA while putting up 21 strikeouts to just six walks in the six games he has started.

    This fast start is similar to the 2011 season, where Lohse started 7-2 with a 2.32 ERA through his first 11 starts, but trailed off as the season progressed finishing 14-8 with a 3.39 ERA.

    Lohse is the top dog right now in this rotation and with Chris Carpenter out until June and Wainwright still struggling, Lohse will only continue to get better. 

    Even better for the Cardinals has been Lance Lynn, who in four starts is 4-0 with 24 strikeouts to just four walks. Lynn has not allowed more than one earned run in any of his starts. He has quickly become one of the better pitchers in the NL and is only 24.

    The third guy in this trio who has helped the Cardinals to the second-lowest team ERA in all of Major League Baseball, is 34-year-old Jake Westbrook, who is 3-1 in four starts with a 1.30 ERA. He has not turned his career around just yet, but he has shown thus far he can be very dominant against right-handed batters. 

    The pitching is a big reason why the St. Louis Cardinals are off to a very good start and rank in the top five in most major pitching categories in MLB.

    Things can only get better once Adam Wainwright's arm recovers to full strength and Carpenter returns in the next couple months. 

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

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    Shortstop Rafael Furcal, who is 34 years old, is batting .315 thus far with three stolen bases through 22 games.

    Furcal is normally a career .283 hitter, but he is proving he can still provide solid production and speed when healthy and in the lineup.

    In comparison, right fielder Carlos Beltran has five homers and five stolen bases in the first 22 games. The last time Beltran had more than five stolen bases was 2008.

    With Lance Berkman on the DL, Beltran has moved up into the cleanup spot and is really producing big numbers thus far.

    Moreover, both players seem to be drinking from the fountain of youth and are a big reason why the Cardinals rank in the top ten in MLB in percentage of most stolen bases to least caught stealing. 

The St. Louis Cardinals' MVP Race

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    Considering Matt Kemp is the early favorite to win the NL Most Valuable Player, there has been no more important bats in the St. Louis Cardinals' lineup than third baseman David Freese and catcher Yadier Molina.

    Freese, who was the World Series hero in 2011, has continued that postseason dominance into the 2012 regular season and is batting .333 with five homers and 20 RBI.

    While Freese is having a breakout year, his partner in crime, Yadier Molina, usually just known as a defensive specialist, has a .316 average with four homers and 15 RBI so far this year. Molina is an elite catcher and his hitting has finally caught up to his phenomenal defense.

    Freese and Molina will continue their dominant play as outfielder Matt Holliday has struggled mightily in April hitting only .215 and Lance Berkman is on the DL. 

The Role Players

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    With Albert Pujols gone to the Los Angeles Angels, Matt Holliday hitting terribly and Lance Berkman on the DL, who else is stepping up keep the St. Louis Cardinals atop the NL Central? 

    The unknown players who have elevated their games even more are: Jon Jay, Skip Schumaker and Matt Carpenter.

    Outfielder Jon Jay is batting .400 in 55 at-bats and already has two homers and eight RBI. The 26-year-old should continue to get plenty of playing time in the Cardinals' outfield.

    Meanwhile, 32-year-old second baseman Skip Schumaker just recently returned from the DL and has a .368 batting average in 19 at-bats.

    Finally, the guy who replaced Lance Berkman at first base is Matt Carpenter, who has a .267 batting average with one home run and 14 RBI in 60 at-bats.

    St Louis does not miss Albert Pujols in the slightest way, as Carpenter has a better batting average, more home runs and more RBI than Pujols, who at this point is hitting .216 with zero home runs and four RBI for the Angels.

    The addition of having three new bats step up, along with All-Star caliber players and veterans, has allowed the Cardinals to lead the NL in batting average at .280 and tie for the lead in runs scored with 113 through 22 games. 

The Youngest Manager in Baseball

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    Who would have thought newly hired manager Mike Matheny would lead this St. Louis Cardinals team out to such a fast start.

    Matheny was a catcher in the MLB for 13 years and played under former manager Tony La Russa from 2000-2004. During his career he won four Gold Gloves, including three with the Cardinals.

    His career as a catcher was marked by an aggressive style, as he was known for throwing out runners and doing the grunt-work.

    That aggressive play during Matheny's career has transitioned perfectly to his career as a manager. Just last week Matheny was ejected for the first time as a manager for arguing a call against the Chicago Cubs.

    However, the most important aspect that the players have picked up from Matheny is being more aggressive on the base paths. Back on April 7th in an interview with Cardinals.com Matheny said:

    We have a couple guys who have a good history of being able to take a base in the right situation and have good instincts with that. We'll continue to be aggressive when it makes sense.

    Furthermore, with great pitching, great hitting and even better coaching, the St. Louis Cardinals are one of the best teams in the NL right now and will continue to get better. 

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