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Cards ready for tight race in second half

Cards ready for tight race in second half

ST. LOUIS -- They endured the loss of their ace for more than a month, the loss of their No. 3 starter for longer than that, and the absence of nearly their entire offense for still longer than that.

2009 Midterm Report

Yet the Cardinals enter the All-Star break in first place, looking as solid as anybody in a wide-open division. Their rotation has been effective and should get better with the return of Kyle Lohse. Their offense is rounding into shape as Ryan Ludwick starts looking like himself again. The bullpen has been a dependable resource all year long.

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It's still a close race, and it's not as though the Redbirds are a flawless team. But things look better at the break than they have in a few years for St. Louis.

Club MVP: Not a lot of drama here. Albert Pujols is the best player in the game, having one of his best seasons. He gets on base, hits for power and plays top-quality defense. If he's not the National League MVP at the end of the year, it will be a significant upset.

Call him "Ace": Chris Carpenter has been merely excellent over the past month after a spectacular start to the season, but he remains the team's best pitcher and one of the best in the league. He needs to stay healthy, which is always an issue for the right-hander, but when he is healthy, he's an elite starter.

Greatest strength: The starting rotation has been a rock for this team just about all season. That was especially true in late May, when the offense slumped badly and the Cards were still able to go on a winning streak. Carpenter and Adam Wainwright have been excellent and Joel Pineiro has been a wonderful surprise. And although Todd Wellemeyer and Brad Thompson haven't always been great at the back of the rotation, they haven't been disastrous, either. And it should get better with the return of Lohse from a forearm injury.

Biggest problem: The lineup still lacks depth. The top three spots have been quite good, now that Colby Rasmus has been installed as the primary No. 2 hitter, and cleanup man Ryan Ludwick is coming around. But the 5-6-7 positions haven't produced enough, and until recently, the cleanup spot was a problem as well. Both Troy Glaus and Mark DeRosa are on the disabled list, but they could return within the next month. To get one back would be a boost. To get both back, healthy and productive, would make this a dangerous team.

Biggest surprise: Pineiro has been huge for this team, despite his misleading nine losses. He reinvented himself as a pound-the-zone sinkerball pitcher, and it's paid off enormously. Pineiro has been extremely stingy with both walks and home runs, so even though his strikeout rate is low, he's been very effective. With Wellemeyer's step back this year and Lohse's injury, Pineiro's re-emergence has been a major boost for the Redbirds.

Team needs: It's hard to say without knowing the return dates for DeRosa and Glaus. If both could come back soon and strong, the primary needs become minor: a bat off the bench, another arm in the bullpen, things like that. However, it's hard to assume that either player will return to full effectiveness soon, so the primary need may be what it's been all along: another right-handed bat.

He said it: "There's a good chance the organization is less surprised this year. How well the team competed last year was a little bit of a surprise to a lot of people, including our organization. How could you figure? You don't have Carpenter, and all this kind of stuff was hitting us, and we were hanging in there. I think there's more to bank on now, that these guys are good." -- Manager Tony La Russa, comparing the 2009 Cardinals to the team's situation in '08.

Mark your calendar: The NL Central race is likely to come down to the very end of the season, which should mean some really entertaining September baseball. Four of the Cardinals' final five series come against Central opponents -- Sept. 18-20 at home against the Cubs, Sept. 21-23 at Houston, Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at Cincinnati and finishing up Oct. 2-4 at home against the Brewers.

Fearless second-half prediction: At the least, the Cardinals will be in it until the final week of the season. If they get even one of Glaus or DeRosa back healthy and effective and the rotation stays healthy, they have an excellent chance of holding onto their division lead and returning to October for the first time in three years.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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