How Big a Surprise Are the St. Louis Cardinals?

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How Big a Surprise Are the St. Louis Cardinals?
(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The NL Central was supposed to belong to the Chicago Cubs. They were the ones with the loaded lineup and enough pitching to carry them to another division crown.

A month into the season, there is a team with a loaded lineup and pitching to back it up, but instead of Cubbie Blue, this team wears Cardinal Red.

Currently at 17-8, the Cardinals have ridden the torrid start of reigning MVP Albert Pujols. With nine home runs, many believe Pujols is more focused than ever before.

One of the keys to Albert's success is how well he is protected. In the past, it was a problem, as no one could consistently find success batting cleanup behind Pujols.

This season, however, Ryan Ludwick has been just as productive as Albert, and he has forced pitchers to pitch more to Albert instead of simply walking him.

With the emergence of Chris Duncan after neck surgery, the Cardinal lineup includes as much power as it has seen in a long time. Pujols, Ludwick, Duncan, and Rick Ankiel all could easily hit 20 home runs.

Troy Glaus would be included in that list if not for his shoulder injury, which will sideline him until at least June. In his absence, both Brian Barden and Joe Thurston have contributed with stellar defense and solid, timely hitting.

The biggest question with the 2009 version of the St. Louis Cardinals was undoubtedly the pitching staff. Most expected Adam Wainwright to be a 15-game winner, but after that, no one knew what to expect. 

Kyle Lohse has continued the success he found in 2008, starting 2009 with a 3-0 record and an ERA just under two.

Joel Pineiro had a lackluster 2008, but came into spring training in much better shape, and it has paid off. He currently owns a 4-1 record, and only gave up one earned run in the loss.

Despite the storylines with each of these pitchers, all the attention was centered on 2005 Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter, hoping to make his return.

In his first start, Carpenter looked dominant against the Houston Astros, and Cardinal nation rejoiced.

That all came to screeching halt in Arizona, when Carpenter strained a stomach muscle. He will miss time until the end of May.

A month into the season, the owners of the best record in baseball are poised to contend for yet another NL Central division crown, and could be in a position to get even better when Glaus and Carpenter return.

While the team that was supposed to run away with the division title sits a game over .500 in fourth place, the team that was supposed to be relegated to mediocrity is trying to steal that crown and turn the NL Central upside-down.

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