Cards Have Tools to Make Second-Half Surge

I know there are a lot of people with mixed or negative feelings about the pre-All-Star break portion of the 2012 Cardinal schedule, but I’m not glass half full – I’m glass full on this group.

If you would have told me that Lance Berkman would play only 13 games, and Allen Craig would only play 46, that Jon Jay would emerge as a key part of the offense and only play 43, and that Jaime Garcia and Chris Carpenter would combine for 11 starts – all by Garcia – I would have been happy with a 46-40 record. In addition to the injuries, 2011 postseason stalwarts Fernando Salas and Marc Rzepczynski struggled in the first half, and Lance Lynn had to fill Carpenter’s spot in the rotation.

We know that Carpenter will miss the rest of the season, but Lynn has stepped up in All-Star fashion. Berkman will return after the break and hopefully provide some productive rest for MVP candidate Carlos Beltran and Craig. Jay has been terrific upon his return. After a horrendous June, Rzepczynski hasn’t been scored upon in three July appearances. Salas was also awful in June but has rebounded with four scoreless July outings. New lefty reliever Barret Browning hasn’t allowed a run in his four games. And closer Jason Motte hasn’t allowed a run in his last five outings, and has converted six straight save opportunities.

Among the healthy guys, Matt Holliday and David Freese head into the break with solid offensive streaks. Rafael Furcal and Beltran could use some rest rather than a trip to Kansas City, but have performed above and beyond expectations in the first half. Yadier Molina may not win MVP honors, but might be the most indispensable Cardinal.

Kyle Lohse has turned into the most reliable starter the Redbirds have. Adam Wainwright has bounced back from Tommy John surgery. Lynn has been terrific. Jake Westbrook has been up and down, but does have seven wins and 105 innings. And rookie Joe Kelly has turned in four straight quality starts.

There’s an opportunity for the Cardinals to be better in the second half than they were in the first. Getting injured players back, and having relievers settle in and perform as they have in the past, can allow this club to compete for another division title.

The big questions are in the starting rotation. Can Kelly be a viable, major-league starter down the stretch? Can Lynn succeed while pitching by far the most innings of his career? Can Garcia return to the form that made him a 13-game winner in his first two seasons in the bigs? And can GM John Mozeliak make a trade for a pitcher, preferably a reliable starter? Can the bullpen perform like it did in April and has in July? If any two of the starter questions come to pass, and the bullpen stays solid, the Cardinals can win the division. If more than two of them combine with a reliable bullpen, they have a chance to put together a run and run away with the division.

You’ll note that I didn’t include the offense or the defense in the equation. Of course, health is mandatory. However, if Holliday, Jay, Beltran, Freese, Furcal and Molina are available every day, and Craig or Berkman can go, the hitting will be there.

I won’t argue with those who nitpick the losses that got away from the Cardinals. Could they have five-10 more wins with cleaner play, better bullpen performance, more timely hitting and more conventional managing? Sure. But every team is going to win at least 60 and lose at least 60. It’s what happens with the other 42 that counts. I have every reason to believe the Cardinals can win 30 of those 40 and be a 90-92 win team. If they get to that number, they should be in the playoffs once again. And that’s nothing to complain about.

The Home Run Derby and the All-Star game can be heard on 101 ESPN. It’s the best All-Star game in all of sports, even though it isn’t what it could be.

And, oh, by the way, just 20 days until Rams veterans practice for the first time in pads under Jeff Fisher.