ST. LOUIS -- Throughout the first half of the Cardinals' season, manager Mike Matheny has been deliberate in preaching long-term goals amid short-term vision.
This was a team constructed by general manager John Mozeliak to compete for a World Series championship, a 12th for the franchise, a would-be first under Matheny's leadership. The objective was clearly defined before the season ever started.
Yet, you won't find Matheny talking much about October these days. He doesn't dwell on the team's first-half record, preferring instead to break down the season by series. The philosophy may make for repetitive and bland sound bites, but Matheny believes in the payoff: a team focused simply on winning a series will find itself where it wants to be come October.
With the All-Star break serving as a convenient time to assess the Cardinals' success so far, there's little fault to find. A team aiming to win series has taken 18, split seven and lost only six. The result? A Major League-best winning percentage of .613 and a place atop a National League Central Division that houses three teams seriously sniffing postseason inclusion.
"I'm real proud about how these guys play the game every day," Matheny said. "They're relentless. They're relentless in their at-bats. They're relentless in the little things, and I think that's something that can set this team apart, is how close we pay attention to getting runners over, to getting guys in, to getting the bunt down, to getting healthy leads and taking the extra base.
"Those little things, to me, the talent gap's so small at the Major League level, regardless of what teams you want to compare … the teams that do the little things right, I think are the ones that are going to be in it at the end. So far, guys have taken a lot of pride in making those happen."
If the Cardinals are to claim their first division title since 2009, they will have to continue to ride their rookies, hope for continued good health and get a boost from its starting staff. The club, too, will have to beat up on its toughest division competition.
|MVP: Yadier Molina
An argument could be made to give this distinction to Matt Carpenter or Allen Craig, but Molina has been the stabilizer for the pitching staff as well as the offense's toughest out.
|Cy Young: Adam Wainwright
Back to pre-surgery form, Wainwright, one of the league's two 12-game winners, has been the definition of team ace.
|Rookie: Shelby Miller
Miller parlayed a rotation spot into a nine-win first half and sits as one of the league's top rookie performers this year.
|Top reliever: Edward Mujica
With the bullpen in disarray, Mujica slid into the closer role and has been nearly perfect in save opportunities since.
Thirty-five percent of the Cardinals' remaining games will be played against the Pirates (14 games) and Reds (10). The most critical stretch is to come in late August and early September, when the Cardinals play 13 straight against the two clubs. Those will offer opportunities for division separation.
"We have some good teams here," catcher Yadier Molina said. "The Pirates are playing well. Cincinnati is playing well. But we have to concentrate on us. We can't look at other teams. We have to concentrate on what we can do every day to win the game."
The keys to the Cardinals closing strong are the same ones that have the team where it is heading into the break. The rotation, while dominant in April and May, has been exposed at times since. Shelby Miller, a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year honors, won nine games, but questions about workload concerns are expected to persist.
That makes it even more critical that Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook emerge as stabilizing presences. Along with ace Adam Wainwright, those two could help lessen concerns about how the fifth spot in the rotation will be filled the rest of the way.
"Obviously, Waino is doing his thing and continuing with how he started the season," Westbrook said. "For the rest of us, it's a matter of getting back to being more consistent and making pitches in big spots to get out of jams and hold them down."
Chris Carpenter, who began his rehab stint on Monday, remains a wild card in all of the Cardinals' rotation plans.
The bullpen, rebuilt internally since Spring Training, calmed after a shaky April. The closer's role has been handled by Edward Mujica, and Trevor Rosenthal has been just as stingy as his setup man. But Rosenthal is one of five rookie relievers currently in the bullpen, which could make it susceptible during a stretch run.
Players to watch in second half
As Carpenter begins a Minor League rehab assignment, the Cardinals start to evaluate how soon and in what role he'll best contribute during the second half.
The Cardinals will be watching his workload, and Miller needs to make some adjustments to improve efficiency and start-to-start consistency of command.
There's arguably no more important a player to this team, which is why Molina's aching right knee will continue to be closely monitored.
Whether the club wants to add a veteran to assist the youngsters is among the questions the Cardinals face with the approaching non-waiver Trade Deadline. If not, they'll stick with the pieces that have posted a 3.09 ERA and held opponents to a .236 average since Mujica became the closer.
The Cardinals have used a Major League most 11 rookie pitchers this season and have accrued 20 wins from that group.
"We have confidence in the bullpen, we can pitch anybody in [any] situation, lefty on lefty or righty on righty," said Joe Kelly, who has vacillated between the rotation and the bullpen. "They all work to give Mujica the ball at the end."
Then there is the offense, which, barring injury, is arguably the deepest in baseball. The Cardinals' lineup features four All-Stars -- Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, Molina and Matt Carpenter. Molina leads the NL in batting average (.342), while Craig (.333) and Carpenter (.321) sit second and sixth, respectively.
As a team, the Cardinals rank first in team average (.276), runs scored (462), on-base percentage (.337) and OPS (.753). With runners in scoring position, the Cardinals are hitting at a .337 mark. Craig (.489) and Beltran (.431) lead the NL in average with runners in scoring position.
Seemingly the offense's lone vulnerability would be health. Both Matt Holliday (hamstring pull) and Molina (right knee inflammation) limped into the break, and losing either would be a significant blow. Molina's 4-for-6, four-RBI day to close the first half quelled some of the concerns regarding his status.
With a road-heavy schedule during the first half, the Cardinals will play 38 of their final 69 games at home. The team will travel westward only once, that being to Colorado in September. One more Interleague series (vs. Seattle, Sept. 13-15) remains on the docket.
And then there's this: The Cardinals had the NL's best record at the All-Star break six previous times over the last half century. In five of those instances, St. Louis capped the season with a World Series appearance.
"We're here, all pulling for each other," Beltran said. "We're all in the same boat, pulling the same way to one destination and that's being able to play in October. We have a great combination of players … veterans, guys who've been here seven, eight years and rookie guys who are just coming up and doing a real good job for us. It's just a great team of good people."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.