5 Second-Half Keys to the St. Louis Cardinals Winning the NL Central

Will Grapperhaus@@WillGrapperhausContributor IIIJuly 10, 2012

5 Second-Half Keys to the St. Louis Cardinals Winning the NL Central

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    It can't be said the Cardinals aren't holding up their end of the deal as they attempt to give their faithful fans a 12th World Series title in 2012.

    After 86 games, the club has the same record they had last year at the same juncture—46-40.

    The Cardinals concluded their first half of the schedule on a high note thanks to a two-out, two-run walk-off single by All-Star Rafael Furcal against Heath Bell of the Marlins on Sunday.

    The hit bailed out Maikel Cleto and the Cards' beleaguered bullpen and allowed them to keep pace with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, who both won as well.

    Looking up from third place at midseason, however, is not what Mike Matheny and John Mozeliak had in mind as they broke spring training in Jupiter, Florida.

    Going into 2012, the Reds appeared to have less depth than the Cards and the Pirates, who teased last year but needed much more than All-Star Andrew McCutchen to be a serious threat.

    Or so most thought.

    According to the metrics, the Cardinals' National League-best run differential of +70 should give them a record of 50-36, which would place them first in the NL Central by a game and a half. But that, as they say, is why they play the games.

    The Cardinals sport an NL-leading offense (.275 average, 426 runs scored) and sixth-best team ERA (3.91), but they clearly have other areas that need shoring up.

    Here are the five most important keys for the Cardinals to have a successful second half.

1. Pitchers Must Focus on Starting Well, Ending Well

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    Looking at a pitching staff's earned run average by inning is an eye-opening exercise.

    The Cardinals are tied for sixth in the National League in team ERA with the Padres and Braves at 3.91. However, broken down by innings one through nine, their worst inning is the opening frame, where they have a 5.65 ERA (14th in the NL).

    The team plays best when their high-octane offense is putting pressure on the opposing pitcher early in the game, but too often the Cards' own starters have either relinquished an early lead on the road, nullifying momentum, or forced the bats to play catch-up at home, which they often do.

    Generally, the pitching is excellent after the first inning and does not start to falter until the sixth and seventh innings, which we will address later.

    Plugging the first inning leaks will go far in turning close losses into wins and reducing pressure on the Cardinals lineup, which will go into lulls as they did during a difficult May.

    Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist also needs to find a way to get more out of his staff in extra innings since the club has a dreadful 6.92 ERA after the ninth inning—13th in the NL.

    The team is 2-5 in extra frames, and if that record was reversed they'd be sitting comfortably in first place.

    Cardinals pitchers must assert themselves from the first pitch and find ways to lock down the extra-inning contests.

2. Keep the "Fragile" Players Rested

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    No matter what you thought of Tony La Russa, one had to respect his ability to keep an entire roster sharp and ready to compete. There were no "Ripkens" on La Russa's teams.

    Manager Mike Matheny has done a terrific job of continuing that philosophy of starting players off the bench on a regular basis and getting the veterans and surgically-repaired players regular rest.

    The baseball season is a grind, and games in 100-degree heat do not help matters.

    The benefits are obvious, of course: yesterday's starter is today's pinch-hitter. Anywhere from one to three players play multiple positions in each contest, and getting the veterans out of blowouts (of which the Cards have had more than their fair share) will keep them fresh throughout the season.

    While the Cardinals would be excited to see Jaime Garcia, Kyle McClellan and Lance Berkman back on the field, the club must do everything to keep their somewhat fragile stars, who have put them in this position to begin with, healthy as well.

    Berkman is coming off minor knee surgery and seems ready to go after the break. Rafael Furcal is poised to have his best season in six years and is already just four games shy of his entire total last season. Carlos Beltran is on pace to surpass 600 at-bats for the first time in four seasons.

    In addition, David Freese and Allen Craig are both on pace to obliterate their season-high number of plate appearances, and they are both as crucial to the Cardinals' prospects of making the postseason as the veterans.

3. Lohse and Lynn Must Last

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    The Cardinals are sending one hurler to the All-Star game: the burly Lance Lynn, who has posted an 11-4 record and 3.41 ERA so far. Casual fans would probably say he's been their most valuable pitcher as well.

    They would be wrong.

    This year, Kyle Lohse has been the staff ace, and it's not even close.

    Lohse leads the Cardinals staff with a WAR rating of 2.6, which is already a career high, with Lynn checking in with a 1.7 WAR. Lohse is on pace to best Chris Carpenter's 3.5 WAR last year, which was the team best.

    Combined with the 2.2 WAR earned last season, Lohse has been the Cards' most valuable starter since the start of last season, which is a rather stunning turnaround for the 33-year-old hurler who has rather mediocre career numbers.

    Lohse is showing impeccable control, walking 1.5 batters per nine innings, and while batters make decent contact against him, batted balls are finding defender's gloves more often than not.

    Lohse is doing a fine job of keeping the fly balls in the park as well. He allowed only 16 home runs in 188.1 innings in 2011 and is on a similar pace this year (11 allowed in 116.1 innings).

    With Lance Lynn, the concern is the accumulation of innings. Lynn threw a career-high 164 innings as a starter with the Memphis Redbirds in 2010. He is already at 103 innings pitched this year.

    If Jaime Garcia and Kyle McClellan return this year, the team may want to consider moving Lynn back to the bullpen to address their late-innings weakness if they can't address it at the trade deadline.

4. Matheny Must Settle Second Base

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    Matt Carpenter became the fourth player to man second base for Mike Matheny, which may have led to some grumbling in the clubhouse, according to Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

    For observers, it shows how desperate the Cardinals are to get some kind of reliable production from the position.

    Daniel Descalso is far too valuable with his Gold Glove-caliber defense to be tied only to second, as he can spell either David Freese at third or Rafael Furcal at shortstop in late situations or for double-switch substitutions.

    For Tyler Greene, being unsettled as a starter will occur when you are a career .221 hitter at the major league level. Greene may be enjoying his final season as a Cardinal.

    Skip Schumaker is a heart-and-soul Cardinal and fan favorite, but his main value may be as a fourth outfielder.

    Carpenter, like Descalso, has been a human Swiss Army knife for Matheny but totes a much more potent bat, which makes him so attractive at second base. He has filled in admirably for Berkman at first base, and if Lance can provide an impact bat in the second half, Carpenter will need a position or a return to the bench.

    The vast majority of second base at-bats have been divided evenly between Descalso and Greene, but the black-hole offense the Cardinals are getting from second should urge them to start getting Schumaker (batting .304 this year) and Carpenter (.291) regular playing time.

5. Bolster the Bullpen

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    The Cardinals always seem to get themselves in trouble when they try to address a roster need in the most frugal way possible—John Mozeliak's proverbial "low hanging fruit" will forever ring in Cardinal Nation's ears.

    History seems destined to repeat itself, as it's clear the Cards' most glaring need is bullpen help, just as it was last year when it came at a cost of Colby Rasmus—the former blue-chip prospect who is now hitting homers from Toronto to Saskatchewan for the Blue Jays.

    Again, if we look at the ERA by innings, we see where the Cardinals have truly faltered—bridging the middle innings to Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte in the eighth and ninth innings.

    Inning ERA NL Rank AVG WHIP
    6th 5.44 13th .297 1.48
    7th 4.60 12th .249 1.35
    9th 3.63 7th .249 1.24

    The ERA doesn't tell the whole story either, as the bullpen has often failed to strand inherited runners, which of course penalizes the starter's final pitching line.

    The Cardinals rank low in save percentage as well with a 59 percent conversion rate. Motte, to his credit, is 20 for 24 in such opportunities.

    Boggs (2 save opportunities), Victor Marte (2), Fernando Salas (1) and Marc Rzepczynski (5), however, are a combined zero-for-10.

    Strong options will be available at the trade deadline (Brett Meyers in Houston and Jonathan Broxton in Kansas City come to mind), but the Cards don't necessarily need a closer.

    They need a middle-innings veteran to own the sixth or seventh inning, and, depending on how well Kyle McClellan looks upon his return, that may be all the Cardinals need.

    But for now, Mike Matheny would have better odds playing the roulette table at the Casino Queen than continually running Maikel Cleto, Marte and Rzepczynksi out in high-pressure situations with the game on the line.