Now, it appears that the Cardinals are about to get healthy. As the weather continues to warm up, the Redbirds believe they're about to do the same.
Kyle McClellan is scheduled to return on Wednesday after missing two weeks. Matt Holliday, who has been hampered for nearly a month, is slated to be back in action on Thursday. David Freese, out since late April, is on the mend. Allen Craig is expected to miss only the minimum 15 days after he was placed on the disabled list on June 8.
At no point this year will the Cardinals be fully whole, since ace Adam Wainwright will miss the entire season following elbow surgery. But within the next few weeks, they could be as whole as they can get.
"I feel like where we're at right now, we're doing a great job and we're only going to get better, which is exciting," McClellan said. "Matt comes off Thursday. Freese is getting close."
The Cardinals need only look north to see evidence of what it can mean to get key players back on the field. The Brewers started slow as they did without Zack Greinke and Corey Hart. Now at close to full strength, Milwaukee is rolling -- best exemplified by a three-game sweep of St. Louis last weekend at Miller Park.
At no time this season have the two division leaders been at full strength at the same time. Freese went down just a few days before Greinke made his Brewers debut. If they're ever healthy at the same time -- and, again, it looks as if that time may be coming soon -- the National League Central could shape up to be a whale of a race.
A year ago, the Cards were in an entertaining race with the Reds for much of the summer, but injuries sapped their offense to the point that they fell out of contention. Freese was out for the second half of the 2010 season, and Colby Rasmus missed a chunk of time at an inopportune point in the season, shortly after the Cards' emotionally charged sweep of the Reds in early August.
That team didn't have the depth to overcome such losses. Thus far, the 2011 Cards have. But they'd still rather have their regulars -- not to mention their bench players. Not only have the Cardinals done without several stars, they're also down some role players. Nick Punto and Gerald Laird are on the mend from an elbow injury and a fractured hand, respectively.
"What's the saying? Hope for the best, prepare for the worst," manager Tony La Russa said. "But try to stress the good part, the hope for the best. We figure we're going to get David back, Gerald Laird, all those guys."
And once they do, an already impressive team could be a major force. A mostly healthy Redbirds offense piled up the runs from mid-April until mid-May, when Holliday first suffered his quadriceps injury. Even then, though, Albert Pujols wasn't really raking. Now Pujols is hot, Lance Berkman is hitting, and Holliday is slated to return.
The 2011 Cardinals are built around the heart of their order, and they're about to have the heart of their order fully intact. They're already looking forward to it.
"It's exciting," McClellan said. "If anything, we've been holding the fort down until we can get everybody back. It just says a lot about the character of the guys, but also, it's a different team from last year. ... Last year we were struggling. Now, this year, it's exciting because it's somebody different every day. It's an Allen Craig. It's a Jon Jay. It's a [Yadier Molina]. This year, it just seems like it could be anybody any day."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.