If the regular season ended today -- which it never does when someone says that -- the Cardinals would not qualify for the postseason. But by Oct. 3, they should have cleared up this problem.
This is not a cheap hangover pick from the Cardinals remarkable, resilient run to the 2011 World Series championship. That achievement does tend to create a favorable view of the Cardinals, both in terms of their tangible abilities and their intangible qualities. But the 2012 team should be able to stand on its own merits. Maybe it could stand a little straighter on those merits than it has so far.
The Cardinals could be aided in their push for the postseason by the additional Wild Card berth available for each league this year. But that wouldn't represent a reason to apologize for anything, either.
The necessary components are all in place. The Cardinals lead the National League in runs scored. They are first in on-base percentage, second in slugging percentage.
They have a starting rotation that is probably better than the force of imagination could allow, given that they have been without Chris Carpenter for the season and Jaime Garcia since early June. The bullpen is all right, although the Cardinals had some difficulty with left-handed relief Sunday.
The Cardinals have three left-handed relievers. But Barret Browning is a rookie. Brian Fuentes has had a substantial career, but it may be nearing the end. Marc Rzepczynski was extremely helpful in the last two rounds of the postseason in 2011, but Sunday he was placed in a situation tailor-made for a left-handed reliever and he did the one thing that could not be done, or more precisely, the two things that could not be done.
After the Cardinals took a 7-4 lead with three runs in the top of the eighth, Rzepczynski was summoned. He walked two left-handed hitters and was quickly lifted. Mitchell Boggs, the Cards' normal eighth-inning man, entered and after retiring two batters, gave up a three-run home run to catcher Erik Kratz. The Phillies eventually won in 11 innings, 8-7, with Browning taking the loss.
There was no point in second-guessing manager Mike Matheny's choice of Rzepczynski to face Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, two left-handed hitters who over the years have done tons of damage for the Phillies. "That's why we have 'Zep,'" Matheny said of that situation.
The atypical struggles of the Phillies have been well-documented, but this season the one thing they have been able to do is defeat NL Central teams. The Phillies, who are 5-2 against St. Louis, are 17-8 against the NL Central, 35-54 against everybody else.
The Cardinals had an epidemic of injuries earlier in the year, but they're healthier in the everyday lineup now. They are nearing the point in the season when excuses will no longer suffice, anyway.
The Cardinals are seven games out of the lead in the NL Central and 2 1/2 games out of the second Wild Card spot, currently held by the Pirates. The division-leading Reds are playing well without Joey Votto. It wouldn't be wise to expect that they're going to slump when he returns.
Atlanta, currently in the lead Wild Card spot, was, of course, the Cardinals' victim last season, after leading St. Louis by 10 1/2 games on Aug. 24 for the NL Wild Card berth. The Braves have recently bolstered their rotation, and they're probably not going to have two straight September collapses.
That leaves Pittsburgh as this season's closest and most likely target for the Cardinals. Forget the stuff about Pittsburgh not having a winning season in 20 years, or its second-half decline last year. The Pirates have a sturdier pitching staff this season. What they don't have is anything like the Cardinals' offense or the Cardinals' experience in making a truly epic late-season run.
The late-season theme for the current Cardinals was given voice this weekend by starting pitcher Kyle Lohse and Matheny.
"We're not where we want to be, but we know we can get where we need to be," Lohse said.
"I believe that this team is as good as anybody," Matheny said.
The task for the Cardinals will be, at a minimum, to prove over the last 47 games that they are one of the five best teams in the NL. They have not had a long stretch of superlative baseball to back up that argument, but I still think they're up to this task.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.