70
      Wednesday
      92 / 70
      Thursday
      92 / 69
      Friday
      91 / 70

      Birds at the break

      St. Louis Post-Dispatch

      There's always something special about Opening Day.

      The bunting all around the stadium, the sellout crowd, the excitement, the feel of the postseason.

      After all, after this game, there are only six months and 161 more games left before the postseason starts.

      Opening Day is another opportunity. Spring is here, hope springs eternal. It's a second chance.

      Or, for the Chicago Cubs, the 105th chance. 1908 sure seems like a long time ago, doesn't it? Poor little Bears.

      The St. Louis Cardinals lost that opener 6-2 at Arizona on April 1. No Foolin'. Doing the math, that made them 0-1 --- and one game below .500. That would be their low-water mark of the season.

      On April 10, the Cardinals blasted the Cincinnati Reds 10-0 behind two-run homers by Jon Jay, Carlos Beltran and Matt Adams, and a complete-game five-hitter by Jake Westbrook.

      That put the Cardinals at 5-4 and over .500 for the first time. They've had their head above water ever since --- have they ever.

      "I'm real proud about how these guys play the game every day," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said after Sunday's win over the Cubs

      They went to the All-Star break at 57-36 , the best record in baseball.

      How have they done it and what do the next 2 1/2 months hold? That's what we'll discuss right here, Marshall and me.

      PITCHING (GRADE A-)

      For a time, if you had a ticket to a Cardinals game, there was a chance you might pitch.

      They had more injuries than an emergency room.

      To name just a few, starters Chris Carpenter (although he's scheduled to make his second rehab start on Saturday), Jaime Garcia and closer Jason Motte were on the shelf. Garcia and Motte are done for the year. But the Cardinals have showcased more young guns than a street gang --- no less than 11 rookies have pitched for the Birds this season. 11! This almost Dirty Dozen has proven to have nasty stuff and has accounted for 20 wins. At the top of the heap Shelby Miller, who's won nine times. He also scripted one of the best pitching performances in franchise history. Pitching at home against the Colorado Rockies on May 10, Miller allowed a single to start the game. But then he pitched a pefect game from there --- 27 up, 27 down. If he could just avoid those lousy starts, Miller might be pretty good. Adam Wainwright has been Adam Wainwright --- fabulous. His 12 wins are tied for the NL lead and his 2.45 ERA is fifth. Without Motte, the Cardinals have turned the closer duties over to Edward Mujica, who has 26 saves in 28 chances and sports a 2.20 ERA. The staff ERA (3.39) is third-best in the league and has allowed the fewest home runs (63) while inducing the most ground-ball double plays (93.) This grade would have been an A if not for the early-season "efforts" of Mitchell Boggs, who was 0-3, blew three of his five save chances, and had an ERA of 11.05. Perhaps we should bump it back to an A, however. Boggs was basically booed out of town and has since been traded. At the very least, that move deserves an A. OFFENSE (A-) Let's start at the bottom and work our way up. This grade would also be an A if the Cardinals weren't last in the league in stolen bases (23). Three players in the NL have more steals than St. Louis. There's not much else to complain about. St. Louis leads the league in batting average (.276), on-base percentage (.337), and runs scored (462). With help from the pitching staff, of course, the Cardinals are also No. 1 in run differential (+131). Yadier Molina leads the league in hitting (.342), Allen Craig is second (.333) and Matt Carpenter is sixth (.321). And here are the most impressive numbers of all --- the Cardinals are batting an astounding .337 with runners in scoring position. Craig is hitting a silly .489 in those situations --- you don't do that in slowpitch softball --- and Carlos Beltran is second (.431). There's certainly something to be said for coming through when it means the most. David Freese has compiled a 20-game hitting streak and Carpenter hit safely in 19 straight. Matt Holliday, a career .310 hitter, had been surging (raising his average to .268) before being sidelined with a hamstring injury. Like dumping Boggs, the bench got better with the release of Ty Wiggington, who was scuffling (at best) with a .158 average. His strikeout-to-hit ratio was 19-to-9. Another A move for an F player. But the muscular Wiggington would be a great find for any slowpitch team in his hometown.Not to discount the defensive part of the equation, the Cardinals are tied for second in fielding percentage and, as mentioned earlier, have turned the most double plays in the NL. OUTLOOK Even though they have the best record in baseball, the Cardinals only have a one-game lead in the NL Central. The Pittsburgh Pirates have turned into your drunk uncle at your Christmas party --- they just don't know when to go away. They have the second-best record in baseball at 56-37. These two teams will meet no less than 14 times the rest of the season. Six of those will be at Busch Stadium, where the Cardinals will play 38 of their final 69 games in the friendly confines. May the best team win. So, we begin baseball's second half. The bunting and thrill of Opening Day have been replaced by the Dog Days and sweat. But it's a second, second chance, if you will.Or, doing the math, it's the 210th chance for the Cubs. Grin and Bear it.