Inconsistency has been the key buzzword around the St. Louis Cardinals to start the 2012 season. They came out of the gates winning their first six series to start the year and nine of their first 11.
The pitching was consistent and the hitting was putting up runs in bunches. Then the Braves came to town in early May, swept the Cardinals and the season has been all over the board since. Injuries, poor pitching from both the starters and bullpen, bats disappearing for games on end, and the Cardinals find themselves barely above .500.
Now as the season nears its halfway point, the Cardinals have managed to keep themselves in the race in the NL Central, only 2.5 games back of the division-leading Cincinnati Reds. Here are five reasons the Cardinals are poised to make a second-half run at the division.
As the Cardinals will officially pass the halfway point of the season this week, the schedule certainly favors them this week and after the All-Star break.
The miserable Colorado Rockies are coming to town on Monday to begin a four-game set. The Rockies are slightly above an AAA team with the injuries and lack of performance they have seen this year. The Rockies roll into town 18 games under .500 and no sign of promise in sight.
Hopefully for Cardinals fans the Redbirds will do what they are capable of and take care of business against the hapless Rockies.
To finish out the first half of the season, the Marlins make a visit to Busch Stadium. The Cardinals recently took two of three from the Fish and showed some serious moxie in making a four-run comeback in the ninth inning against Marlins closer Heath Bell, capped off by a Yadier Molina two-run homer.
Immediately after the All-Star Game, the Reds and Cardinals square off. This will give the Cardinals the opportunity to make up direct ground against the division leaders. So far in 2012, the Cards own a 4-2 record against the Reds.
After the Reds series, the Cardinals make a visit to Milwaukee, which currently sits in fourth place in the NL Central with a 36-42 record. The Cards are also 4-2 against the Brew Crew in 2012.
So in short, the next few weeks offer a favorable schedule for the Cardinals to make a serious run at first place and strengthen their position for a postseason appearance.
The trade deadline acquisitions in 2011 helped push the Cardinals toward their late-season heroics that eventually resulted in a World Series championship.
While I'm not the Cardinals GM, I do play one while at my computer. The Cardinals are in serious need of some bullpen help, as they were last year at this point.
The most pressing need is to find a lefty reliever. Marc Rzepczynski has been just short of awful this year, posting a 5.86 ERA in his 38 appearances this year. Sam Freeman, a lefty the Cardinals brought up from Memphis to help in the bullpen, earned a ticket back to Memphis after 0-1 record and 6.00 ERA to go along with a 1.417 WHIP. Lefty Barret Browning looked good in his MLB debut on Saturday night, pitching two scoreless innings against the Pirates.
However, the Cardinals need to look for a spark to shake up the bullpen as they did in 2011.
If Browning works out as the lefty in the pen, the Cardinals should still look for someone to replace Fernando Salas and possibly Maikel Cleto. Neither has had an impressive 2012 and Cardinal fans cringe when they come into the game.
The Cardinals should make a run at Minnesota reliever Alex Burnett. He would be a great addition to Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte in the Cardinals bullpen. Burnett has not allowed a run in 12 consecutive appearances and is finally finding his way in the majors. He also plays for a last-place team, which may make him expendable and allow the Twins to continue to rebuild with a few Cardinal prospects.
If Chris Carpenter or Jaime Garcia are unable to make a return this season, the Cardinals need to look closely at Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels, whose names both continue to surface in trade rumors. Adding an ace like that would bring a much-needed buzz to St. Louis and would serve as an ideal short-term rental for a postseason run.
Injuries have taken their toll in St. Louis in 2012. Losing ace Chris Carpenter in spring training wasn't something the Cardinals were expecting when they began their title defense this year, and the timetable for his return has been all over the board, though the Cardinals are still hopeful Carp will take the mound this season for the Cardinals.
Add to that the return of Lance Berkman expected in late July and the Cardinals will hopefully have back two the major reasons the Cardinals were World Series champions in 2011. Berkman was hitting .333 in his 13 games in 2012 and the Cardinals lineup could very well become lethal with him back in the lineup.
With the return of Jon Jay and Allen Craig to go along with the strong play of Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina, the chemistry and swagger of the Cardinals seem to be coming back.
The lineup looks extremely confident and the numbers back that up. The Cardinals lineup has five regulars boasting an above-.300 batting average (Jay, Craig, Matt Holliday, Beltran, Molina). Beltran and Molina find themselves with ticket to Kansas City for the MLB All-Star Game next week along with Rafael Furcal and Lance Lynn.
Now that most of the bats are healthy, the Cardinals are poised to put up a ton of runs in the second half of the season. So even if the pitching isn't as good as it should be, the Cardinals should be able to bludgeon a few opponents into submission for some wins.
I think Russ Ortiz summed it up nicely during the reunion of the 2002 San Francisco Giants on Sunday when he remarked, "The feelings of, 'Man, we may actually win this thing.' And then to not win, you realize how hard it is to win a championship."
Winning a championship has eluded some of the games greatest, namely Ted Williams, Tony Gwynn, Ernie Banks and so on. Having the experience of winning a championship and knowing what needs to be done to get there is irreplaceable.
This year's squad knows while it may be down, it's not out. Having the confidence to know the team will come together at the right time isn't something you can teach. Most of the 2012 version of the Cardinals were on the team that made the memorable run to the promise land last year.
The Cardinals know what work lies ahead and have the confidence they can do it. Add those elements together and you could have a team who puts on a second-half surge that leads to another deep postseason run in October.