4 Biggest First-Half Surprises Keeping St. Louis Cardinals in Contention
With injuries spreading like chicken pox, the St. Louis Cardinals looked depleted just one month into the 2012 season.
But halfway through the year, the Cardinals are 2.5 games out of first in the NL Central, and it's all because of unlikely players stepping up when the stakes were highest.
Here are St. Louis' four biggest surprises before the All-Star break.
1. AAA Memphis Redbirds
More so than any player on the 25-man roster, St. Louis’ minor league affiliate, the Memphis Redbirds, have kept the Cardinals in contention in 2012.
Plagued by injuries early in the season, manager Mike Matheny was forced to turn to his young prospects in the minors to fill a gaping hole at first base and a mess of a situation in the outfield.
Matt Carpenter began the year as a backup to a backup; but starting April 11, he became the Cardinals’ every day first baseman. Carpenter, who went 1-for-7 (.067) in 15 at-bats in 2011, went 4-for-4 in just his fourth game as a starter, hitting a home run and a triple with five runs batted in.
Carpenter is hitting .291 with an OPS of .864 this season.
In May, however, even he was unable to avoid the pandemic of injuries spreading around the clubhouse. He was forced to miss a month with a strained oblique muscle, meaning St. Louis had to dig even deeper into their farm system for a healthy first baseman.
The Cardinals called up Matt Adams, the 2011 Minor League Player of the Year. He wasn’t given a couple pinch-hit opportunities to ease the transition, either. The 23-year-old was thrown into the starting lineup and told to produce immediately. He hit .378 in his first ten games, later cooling off and dropping that average down to .244. He was optioned back down to Memphis on June 24 once Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter returned from the DL.
Lastly, St. Louis has to acknowledge the play of Adron Chambers and Shane Robinson in the outfield. They have each hit above .250 with OPS over .630 while Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, John Jay and Skip Schumaker all missed games due to injury.
Sure, .250 averages are nothing to brag about, but these guys aren’t Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. When you think of how thin the Cards were at points throughout the first half of the season, Matheny could’ve easily been stuck with players hitting below .150.
The rate at which these four minor leaguers adjusted to the majors has kept St. Louis from absolutely tanking this season. Instead of loitering at the bottom of the division with the Cubs and Astros, the Cardinals find themselves 2.5 games back of the NL Central-leading Pirates.
2. Matt Holliday's Recent Power Surge
Matt Holliday barely snuck into the All-Star game this year, and when you think back to his struggles at the beginning of the season, the Cardinals’ left fielder has come a long, long way.
Holliday hit .215 in the month of April and an had an even colder streak in the first 11 games of June, when he hit just .195.
He’s been known as a streaky hitter his entire career, but the way in which he has turned this season around is unlike anything we have ever seen.
Suddenly, Holliday finds himself ranked seventh in the NL in RBI (56), eighth in batting average (.317) and fifth in runs scored (56).
Remember when people were freaking out (oh wait, they still are) about Joey Votto’s ridiculous 34-for-64 (.531) stretch in June? Well, according to the Elias Sports Bureau last Wednesday, Holliday had just one less hit (33-for-64) in his last 64 at-bats (.516).
The ball looks the size of a beach ball to him at this point; but we know all too well how quickly that can change for Holliday.
Let’s just hope the All-Star break doesn’t shrink it back down to a golf ball.
3. Lance Lynn
During spring training, all the focus in St. Louis’ rotation was on Chris Carpenter or Adam Wainwright. How long will it take Carp to return? Will Wainwright ever find his Cy Young contending curveball? Can the Cardinals even compete if these two aren’t at their best?
Sitting in the shadows with the answer was Lance Lynn. And that answer was yes.
Lynn has made it seem like Carpenter has been pitching all year long. He jumped out to a 6-0 start early in the year and at the break he is third in the NL in wins (11), ninth in strikeouts (105) and has a 1.23 WHIP and a 3.41 ERA.
Lynn hit a bit of a rough patch in the latter half of June, allowing season-high run totals in three straight starts, but after his last outing, it looks as though the Cy Young conversation can start back up. Lynn threw six innings of shutout baseball in his final start before the All-Star break.
If Lynn is able to find his groove like he did in his last outing, the second half of the season looks incredibly promising (a strange thing to say now that Carpenter has elected to undergo season-ending surgery).
Lynn is no longer MLB’s well-kept secret, and after being voted onto the NL’s All-Star roster, we’ll see how Lynn handles the spotlight in the crucial months of August and September.
4. Carlos Beltran
You have to save the best for last, right?
Carlos Beltran has been the Cardinals’ biggest surprise of the first half, and with three more months of baseball to play, it’s incredible that this has been his most memorable season yet.
Already this year, Beltran has recorded his 2,000th career hit and has become the first switch-hitter in MLB history to hit 300 home runs and steal 300 bases.
He currently ranks first in the NL in RBI (65), second in HR (20), eighth in OPS (.924) and 10th in slugging (.542). He also recently participated in his first ever Home Run Derby.
As a prospect in Kansas City, Royals Hall of Famer George Brett spoke highly of Beltran, telling ESPN Deportes’ Hiram Martinez how Beltran "could do it all,” and that he was “looking to become the most complete and consistent player.”
At 35 years young, he is showing that same consistency.
He can still hit, still field and amazingly, can still run those basepaths better than anyone in the game. According to Martinez, Beltran has the highest stolen base percentage (87.2) among players with 300 or more stolen bases in their career.
It’s safe to say Beltran has left his mark on this game forever, only he’s not quite finished yet.