ST. LOUIS -- The tenor of the Cardinals' first half changed dramatically in its final days, as the club's closing speed, coupled with a Milwaukee collapse, erased almost all of the division lead that the Brewers had spent three months building.
Down 6 1/2 games at the start of July, the Cards begin the second half trailing by just one game.
For all the first-half frustrations and talks of this being an underachieving defending league champ, the Cardinals find themselves positioned where they expected to be all along. Only two National League teams, the Dodgers and Brewers, have more wins than the Cards' 52.
The NL Central also sets up to feature another thrilling fight to the finish, as four teams entered the All-Star break within 3 1/2 games of first place. As the schedule unfolds, the Cardinals will play those other three teams a combined 26 more times as they go after a second consecutive division title.
Five key developments
1. A rock solid rotation
Adam Wainwright has anchored a starting rotation that finished the first half with a 3.35 ERA, the fourth lowest in the National League. The group leads the Majors in shutouts and has weathered injuries to Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly and Jaime Garcia without seeing much regression.
2. Craig scuffles
The best hitter in the Majors with runners in scoring position and an NL MVP Award candidate until a late-season injury in 2013, Allen Craig has been a shell of that this year. He's had to be replaced as cleanup hitter, and the Cardinals have scrambled to replace his production.
|MVP: Adam Wainwright
The MVP would be Matt Adams if this category were exclusively for hitters, but there's no question Wainwright has been the most impactful contributor so far.
|Top starter: Adam Wainwright
Wainwright won 12 games in the first half, finished seven innings in 15 of his 18 starts and did not allow a run in nine of those outings.
|Top rookie: Kolten Wong
He has endured his ups and downs, including a demotion and stint on the disabled list, but when healthy, Wong has shown flashes of being a sparkplug and, most recently, a power hitter.
|Top reliever: Pat Neshek
Neshek parlayed a Minor League contract into a big league job, and he worked his way into a setup role while posting the league's lowest first-half reliever ERA (0.70) and WHIP (0.57).
3. Power drought
Two years after featuring five players with at least 20 homers, the Cardinals are on pace to have only one (Jhonny Peralta) reach that figure. Despite hitting eight homers in the final week of the first half, the Cards still rank last in the league with 60 homers.
4. Bullpen relief
A season that opened with Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist as setup men, reached the second half with Pat Neshek and Sam Freeman filling those roles. Both have provided a boost, while Trevor Rosenthal has dodged several close calls in the ninth.
5. Still need speed
This club was built to have an added element of speed, though it's made little impact thus far. Peter Bourjos lost his opportunity at everyday playing time, and Kolten Wong missed periods of the first half due to a demotion and injury. The Cardinals enter the break ranked 13th in the NL with 36 stolen bases.
Five storylines to keep an eye on
1. Any additions?
While the Cardinals have had their first-half deficiencies, there's not an obvious place for the club to add at the Trade Deadline, but that doesn't mean they won't. The Cards could reinforce their rotation by adding a starting pitcher. If they want to add a bat, it may just be to upgrade the bench, as Wong has shown this month that he may be the best second-base option available.
Players to watch in second half
A year after batting .454 with runners in scoring position, Craig has been far from the run-producing cleanup hitter the Cardinals anticipated he'd be.
The top prospect can solidify everyday playing time with production, as the Cards are still hopeful he can spark an offense that has been inconsistent.
It's still uncertain if and when Wacha will pitch again this season, but getting their No. 2 starter back would be a boost for the Cardinals' starting staff.
2. Missing Molina
Amid their strong first-half finish, the Cardinals also lost their Gold Glove catcher, Yadier Molina, to a thumb injury. The Cards are hopeful Molina will return in September, but they'll have to rely on Tony Cruz to lead the pitching staff until then. Cruz has never had this sort of extended starting opportunity, but he has spent years learning behind the best.
3. Outfield alignment
The Cardinals remain overloaded with outfielders, and it will be up to manager Mike Matheny to determine what sort of rotation he'll use. Everyday playing time is there if Allen Craig or Oscar Taveras can get on a roll, and Jon Jay can keep himself in the mix if he produces offensively. Matheny's challenge will be optimizing his outfielders while also making sure they don't get stale on the bench.
4. Salvaging Shelby
The Cardinals expected the second-year starter to build upon a 15-win season and be a top-of-the rotation force. Instead, Shelby Miller has labored to pitch deep in games and has fought his delivery and command. The Cards need Miller to reduce his walk totals and improve his efficiency if he is going to become a reliable member of a rotation that is missing Wacha.
5. Bullpen composition
Rosenthal lived on the edge during the first half, but he has gotten the results. The Cardinals hope to get setup man Siegrist back shortly after the All-Star break, but they're still looking to get Jason Motte back to pre-surgery form. If Martinez is eventually bumped back into the bullpen, this area could be a major strength for the Cards, but it could also create a logjam that will lead to some tough personnel decisions.
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.