ST. LOUIS -- There could be rejoicing or there could be a sigh of relief for St. Louis Cardinals fans. But without being at all pushy, there could be both.
Just two games ago, the Cardinals came home from a 2-5 road trip to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Their primary direction did not seem upward. Their offense was not performing at its earlier, highly efficient clip. Club RBI leader Allen Craig was sidelined with a sprained left foot. There were even questions about some of the starting pitchers.
And they were in second place in the NL Central, just 1 1/2 games back of the Pirates, but not exactly putting together a major September move.
But oh, how a couple of warm, humid nights at Busch Stadium can repair the overall baseball view. The Cardinals, on the strength of 12-8 and 5-0 victories, are a first-place team once again. The Central has a furious race with 1 1/2 games separating three clubs. Two of these clubs will likely qualify as Wild Card entries, but the Cardinals are after something loftier than that.
Friday night, Joe Kelly did his highly reliable six-innings bit, allowing one run, moving his record in his last 10 starts to 8-0 with a 1.70 earned run average. The Cardinals offense exploded for nine straight hits and seven runs in the seventh inning on the way to a 12-8 victory.
Back at Busch Saturday night, with first place at stake, the news became even better. Rotation ace Adam Wainwright had been atypically knocked around for 15 runs over two starts against the Reds. Now he was starting the middle game of the series against the Pirates.
But there was nothing physically wrong with Wainwright, nor was there any irreversible decline in the quality of his work. He had been tipping his pitches against the Reds. Everybody who was anybody on the St. Louis team had been in the Cardinals clubhouse breaking down tape of Wainwright's Cincinnati performances to figure out the problem and then the solution.
Wainwright also found mechanical flaws in his delivery. Tipping pitches no more, eliminating the mechanical difficulties, Wainwright was back in command on the mound Saturday night, seemingly becoming sharper as the game wore on.
A crowd of 45,110, the 24th sellout at Busch this season, roared its approval in the seventh as Wainwright struck out the side, getting Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd and Pedro Alvarez, the fourth, fifth and sixth hitters in Pittsburgh's order.
Wainwright's line was, well, Wainwright-like. Seven innings, two hits, two walks, no runs, eight strikeouts. OK, normally he wouldn't have walked as many as two. He had averaged one walk per start this season. But he said that he pitched around the left-handed-hitting Morneau in the fourth with first base open. That resulted in a walk, but then Byrd hit into a double play and Wainwright was right again.
"My stuff was drastically different," Wainwright said, contrasting this performance with the last two starts. "We poured into film for two or three days, coaching staff and players all digging through stuff. We found a few things we knew we could adjust to make me more successful. Then we went out today and we did it. ... Between the last start and this start I did everything imaginable to be ready for this day.
"The [tipping pitches] may have had something, it may have not, but I what I do know was my stuff tonight was different. It was sharper, it was cutting, it was down, it was biting, it was late-moving. And when I'm doing that, I'm very tough, something I've lacked the last two outings."
The first-place status, OK, it's not exactly etched in gold, with a one-half game lead over Pittsburgh. But it's two games better than the Cardinals were two games ago.
"We know that the standings are there," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We try hard not to pay a whole lot of attention to them, just because there is so much time to go. I speak for myself there, I don't necessarily encourage the guys not to."
The Cardinals have picked up the pace in every category over the last two days. Between improved hitting and Wainwright getting back to his normally outstanding level this first-place thing may not be a temporary condition.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.