Midterms Put St. Louis Cardinals at Head of Class

Lenny KosteckiCorrespondent IJune 24, 2009

NEW YORK - JUNE 23:  Joel Pineiro #35 of the St. Louis Cardinals celebrates defeating the New York Mets at Citi Field on June 23, 2009 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images)

The seasonal swelter has settled in like a wet blanket over another humid St. Louis summer, but that hasn’t affected the cool factor of baseball’s upcoming Midsummer Classic featuring the Gateway City as a backdrop.

The last time the MLB All-Star Game was held in St. Louis, the irrepressible Casey Stengel said of the fledgling 1966 version of Busch Stadium, “It sure holds the heat well.”

But forget the heat; it’s all cool because as midterms roll in, the Cardinals find themselves near the top of the class in the National League Central. It’s a tight race with every team in the division still holding a realistic shot at making the grade.

It’s no surprise why the Cardinals are flying high—Albert Pujols. Baseball’s Baron of Bash is having another explosive year. Ho-hum. To mention his stats is like ordering the Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s; while it’s nothing new, its ability to get the job done is uncanny.

Albert’s batting average is consistently in the top 10. As a matter of fact, most of his offensive stats have set up camp there.

It almost goes without saying that gaudy half-season numbers are being posted: 26 home runs (while his strikeout total is a measly 28), 70 RBI, .328 batting average.

Other numbers don’t make the breathless highlights of SportsCenter, but they’re no less pivotal. Pujols has 53 walks, 57 runs scored, and an on-base percentage of .446; he gets to say "hi" to the opposing first baseman in nearly half of his plate appearances.

Even more notable, while many Major Leaguers have made a good living getting a hit every fourth time at bat, Pujols is SCORING A RUN almost every fourth time he steps into the batter’s box!

That is a one-man divisional crown right there, fans. A steady production line of offense rated superior for reliability. Where would the Cardinals be without him? Please, don’t make a Cardinal fan wince.

Yes, Pujols’ numbers are overwhelming among the mortals of the St. Louis lineup, but other names and numbers do stick out when reviewing the success of the first half of this long, hot summer.

This Chris Carpenter fella seems to have a pretty good idea of what he’s doing on the mound, when he’s healthy enough to mount it. After losing time to injury (again), the former Cy Young winner sports a muted 5-1 record and an ERA of just a buck-fifty, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is an enviable 5:1.

He’s giving his team an average of 6.5 quality innings per start. Meanwhile, he’s allowing opponents only half a hit per inning. For opposing hitters, that’s like trying to start a blazing rally with two soggy sticks. Carpenter’s putting the “earned” in ERA.

After a series of injuries and long layoffs, it appears the Cardinals are once again ready to reap the benefits of a healthy Carpenter. He’s not so much responsible for their position now, as he’ll very likely play a big role in how they finish.

Can he inflate the win column with 15-20 wins this year? Stay tuned.

If only fellow starters Joel Pineiro (6-8), Kyle Lohse (4-4) and Todd Wellemeyer (6-7) were having seasons with comparable stats to Carpenter’s...or even their own from last year. The Birds of St. Louis could very well be looking down from a more comfortable perch.

Meanwhile, the Cardinal offense has experienced feast-or-famine inconsistency. A finger can be pointed at the team’s cleanup hitters, where we’ve found such names as Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel, Colby Rasmus, and other assorted understudies.

The cleanup–by-committee has combined for stats that reside squarely at the bottom of the National League in batting average (hovering around .220) and OPS. That’s no recipe for a pennant drive.

When you have a guy named Pujols batting in front of you, you can be sure opposing pitchers will look to you for better odds of success. Your job is to keep the raiser honest. So far, the bluffing has benefited only opposing pitchers.

After last year's “firemen” added more gasoline than relief to the late innings of Cardinal games, Ryan Franklin has been very steady as this year’s appointed closer (17 of 18 saves converted).

Franklin has given up just 19 hits in 26 appearances. When you mix that with 20 strikeouts against five walks, it’s easy to see why the Redbirds are holding fast to the leads they build.

So let’s review the keys to a fall filled with Cardinal red.

1. Albert Pujols. The only thing stopping this "Manchine" is injury. I just crossed myself and knocked on wood there. If you’re a Cardinal fan, you might consider following my lead.

2. Chris Carpenter. Once again, health is a big factor here. We know Carpenter knows how to pitch; it’s just a matter of having the physical health to do it. However, he’ll still need better performances from most of the other starters.

3. Cleanup hitter. The platoon of fourth-place batters (notice I didn’t use the term “hitters” here) is going to have to really pick up the pace. They don’t have to be first in the league, but they’ve got to improve immensely on last.

4. Ryan Franklin. When the Cardinals' sporadic offense comes through, Franklin is going to have to make it hold up. This team can’t afford to throw away victories late in the game.