Cards Need Only Tweaks for Runaway Central Success

During the course of the Cardinals’ first 28 games, we talked about the point at which they’d face teams outside the Central division. They played 27 in a row against the Central, and went 16-11 in those games, allowing seven or more runs three times (in their home opener against Chicago, in a 10-7 win over Pittsburgh and in a May 5 loss at Houston).

This past weekend, they allowed seven or more runs in each game against Atlanta, three losses by scores of 9-7, 7-2 and 7-4. The Cardinals did get one quality start, from Lance Lynn in the finale, but had an ERA of 7.33 for the three games.

There are cracks showing in the Cardinal pitching. So far in May, they rank 15th of 16 teams in ERA at 4.87. Their .272 average against is fourth-worst in the league for the month, and their walks/hits per innings pitched of 1.47 is 14th. Part of these problems is predictable. Jaime Garcia struggles on the road, and had a bad start against Atlanta on Friday night. Adam Wainwright is going to have his good days and bad days, and Saturday was a bad day. The offense couldn’t get things going on Sunday, and conspired with the bullpen to waste Lynn’s grinding effort.

While what has happened this month is troubling, the Cardinals do maintain a 2.5 game lead over the Reds in the NL Central and are simply, clearly better than most of the division. The Cardinals have scored 65 more runs than their opponents, with Houston’s +6 being the second-best runs scored ratio in the division.

Pittsburgh has scored 97 runs in 34 games, and is the only team in baseball yet to score 100 runs. It’s hard to imagine that the Pirates’ offense is going to get much better. They don’t fit the profile of a division champion club. Milwaukee, on the flip side, has allowed 170 runs, second most in the NL. Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf have been disasters so far for the Brewers. Even though as a club they’ve pitched better in the second month of the season, 40 percent of their rotation is really struggling, and they’ve lost two starting players (Alex Gonzalez and Matt Gamel) to season-ending knee injuries.

Houston and Chicago are in admitted rebuilding projects.

The threat exists in Cincinnati. Joey Votto had a breakout game on Sunday, with three homers, including a walk-off winner against Washington.

They’ll get some relievers back soon, in key eighth-inning man Nick Masset and lefty Bill Bray returning within weeks. They have ability in their rotation, but Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake need to pitch better than they have in the last three weeks.

The biggest test for Cincinnati will be how they deal with losing their cleanup hitter. With Lance Berkman out, the Cardinals were able to maintain first place in the division, going 15-11 in his absence. Now the Reds have had to return Scott Rolen to the DL with his chronically bad shoulder. Can they hang in until they get Rolen back? That’ll be the key to the Reds’ season.

It’s strange to say for a team in mid-May, but the NL Central is there for the taking for the Cardinals. They’ve already overcome injuries. Now they just need to overcome some blips in their pitching and they can race to another division title.