OAKLAND, Calif. -- A year ago, the St. Louis Cardinals finished the first half third in the NL Central, at 42-39 on July 3. They snuck into the playoffs with a Wild Card berth and made it all the way to Game Seven of the NLCS against the San Francisco Giants, only to fall to the eventual World Series champions.
All of that, without future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols and without future Hall-of-Fame manager Tony LaRussa, who retired following St. Louis's 2011 World Series win.
"I think we use last year as a learning opportunity, and we think the guys have also built a bond," says second-year manager Mike Matheny. "Now, what happened in 2011, there were a lot of things that developed the players that they are, but to think that that's automatically going to translate to 2013 is a mistake. Don't look past the lessons that you can learn and I think it's helped develop their mentality and their level of expectation, so it's been big for them, but still, adjustments have to be made for this year."
This season, the Cardinals are two games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the best record in the majors, at 49-32, following a hard-fought series against Oakland in what could very well have been a preview of this season's Fall Classic.
They've accomplished that feat without veteran Lance Berkman (signed as a free agent with the Texas Rangers on Jan. 7), starting pitcher Kyle Lohse (signed as a free agent on March 25 by the Milwaukee Brewers), sparkplug infielder Skip Schumaker (traded on Dec. 12, 2012 to the Los Angeles Dodgers), and with ace reliever Jason Motte and veteran shortstop Rafael Furcal both on the 60-day disabled list.
"We've had just some talented players. We attribute a lot of that to our scouting department, our minor league development department. We've brought in some good free agents as well," says Matheny. "It's a matter of guys stepping up when opportunity presents itself, to take advantage of it and make an impact when they do have that chance. We never try to focus too much on the negative. When we do lose somebody, you never like to see that happen, but you also realize that it's an opportunity for someone else to make an impact."
How have the Cardinals kept things rolling? Well, they really haven't. Their longest winning streak has been five games, though they did win 10 of 13 at one point in the first half. In Matheny's mind, St. Louis still has yet to hit its full stride.
"We've played some pretty good stretches, and I don't think we've had that long run yet that I think that we will have," says Matheny. "What is our streak? Five? Which isn't […] at one point it was 10 of 13, but as far as just rolling off win after win after win, I still think that's ahead of us.
"I think we've set kind of a level of expectation for some things that we've seen so far this year, for what we should look like, and I think we've seen some well-rounded periods of time -- that one in particular -- where starting pitching was there, relief pitching really seemed to fall in place, and the guys were just pounding out tough at-bats, so I think there were. Now, can we be better than that? Maybe slightly, but very infrequently, at points during the season, do you have all of those components coming together. Plus, right in the middle of that, we were getting the big hits, where we were getting the two-out RBIs. Is that as good as we can possibly be? I wouldn't go there, but I think it was pretty darned good."
While Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig have kept the Cardinals third in the league in runs scored (401), Matheny himself may be as much of a factor in the team's continued success, as St. Louis embarks on the beginning of the second half of the schedule tonight.
Starting the second 81 games, St. Louis is third in the majors in batting average (.274), third in on-base percentage (.334), third in ERA (3.31), have given up the fewest home runs in the bigs (52) and have the seventh-lowest opponent batting average (.244), while boasting the third-best fielding percentage in the majors.
"He's somebody who had been around the Cardinals franchise, somebody who had been managed by Tony, managed by other good managers, and he's done a great job coming in and stepping in," Holliday says. "He keeps a lot of the same things that Tony had, but also brings his own sort of personality, and letting that come out. We've had a lot of guys step up. We've had a lot of young players step in. Allen Craig has turned into one of the best players in the National League, playing first base. Obviously, following Albert was no easy task, but he's turned into one of the best hitters in the National League."
Craig – who signed a $31 million extension this offseason – just finished a June in which he hit .330, with three doubles, six home runs and a staggering 26 RBIs. Heading into a three-game set against the favored team of his childhood – the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim -- Craig will reunite with Pujols, but this time, they'll be in opposing dugouts.
"Things have been going good. It's not something that I try to really focus on, being the guy replacing Albert," Craig says. "Obviously, I realize that's the case, but I'm still young in my career, still trying to establish myself. I'm really trying to put that focus on the team and focus on winning and whatever I can do to contribute."
After the three-game series in southern California, the Cardinals head home for a five-game home stand with the Miami Marlins and Houstin Astros, before hitting the road for a four-game appointment in Chicago against the Cubs. St. Louis ends the month of July with five games in Pittsburgh – the NL Central leader – before returning home to face the red-hot Los Angeles Dodgers for four, followed by six games against the Cubs and Pirates. In the month of August, the Cardinals play a total of 20 games against divisional opponents, which could very well help determine the Central champion.
"I think there's a lot of truth to that, but any team can head in a bad direction, and head in a great direction and run off with it," says Matheny. "I know it makes for great drama building up, great news about how teams are doing, but at any point, any team can really run with it or run away from it. We just are really talking around here: Let's do our thing. Let's not get too concerned about what's going on outside. It's fun. It's fun to play against Cincinnati. It's fun to play against Pittsburgh. We feel that extra excitement, and there's all kinds of buzz and the fans are into it. That's great. It'll make for a fun second half."
In just his second year as a big league manager, Matheny has become a steady hand rivaling the likes of his predecessor, and that's no accident.
"I learned a lot from Tony," says Matheny. "I played for him for five years. But, I've learned from every manager and coach I've spent time with; all the teammates, coaches. I try and figure out a way to learn something every day I'm out here. It's amazing how much new – no matter how much time you spend around this game – how much you've got your antennae up to something new, how much is out there to gain."
For a team that has lost so much over the past two seasons, Matheny has a quiet calm about him as the Cardinals begin their second half, a calm that belies his relative inexperience at the helm.
"Our goal is to stay consistent, put our heads down and play the game right, and we'll look up at the end and be where we want to be," Matheny says. "It has to do with our veteran guys, and that's nice to have the youthful energy and excitement of our young players, but you need that stability from veteran players who have gone through the highs and know that if you put too much stock into that, it'll burn you, and who have been through the lows and know that if you dwell on those too long, they'll stick around longer than what you want. I think it's just great veteran leadership from our players, allowing us to have that consistency, which has been a goal."
Ryan Gorcey covers Major League Baseball and publishes BearTerritory.net for Scout.com and FOX Sports NEXT. Follow him on twitter at @RGBearTerritory.
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