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LADELPHIA -- Compared to where they were last August, the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals are walking on the beach, in the sunshine, with pleasant company.
Last year's Cardinals staged an epic stretch run on their way to the World Series championship. On Aug. 24, they were 10 1/2 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League Wild Card race.
Absolutely nothing can be taken for granted in these matters, but even after Friday night's loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Cardinals were 2 1/2 games out of the nearest NL Wild Card position. That berth is held at the moment by another NL Central team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cardinals will have plenty of chances to do something about that situation, and soon. They have six games left against the Pirates, all this month.
But the real reason for optimism with St. Louis lies in the sturdiness of its starting pitching. Yes, the Cardinals lead the league in runs scored, but all things taken into consideration, the most pleasant aspect of their current situation may be the rotation. This is particularly true since they have been able to compensate for being without Chris Carpenter for the season and Jaime Garcia since early June.
"You lose Carpenter and then you lose Garcia, and those are two of your top three [starters]," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Friday. "But then you have Lance Lynn doing what he's doing and Joe Kelly. It's been pretty impressive what they've done. And then you have [Jake] Westbrook and [Kyle] Lohse, who have been doing a great job of not just pitching that day but of leading. They're taking veteran roles, as obviously Wayne-o [Adam Wainwright] does."
Wainwright, in his recent starts, has clearly demonstrated that he is back in form after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Lohse (12-2, 2.72 ERA) has not lost a decision since June 15. He didn't lose Friday night at Citizens Bank Park, either, pitching seven innings of one-run ball in a top-shelf pitchers' duel against two-time Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay. Lohse left with the game tied at 1, but the Phillies won, 3-1, on Chase Utley's two-run, eighth-inning homer off rookie left-hander Barret Browning.
"The big thing for me is that I've been healthy for the last two years, and this has kind of been a continuation of last year," Lohse said. "I just feel like this year has been more consistent; going out there every time with my stuff and just trusting it and using our defense."
The Cardinals have a sense that they belong in a better place than their current third. Time is not against them yet. The level of talent on this club also argues in favor of the Cardinals reaching the postseason.
"We know there's a sense of urgency that we need to get this going," Lohse said. "We've got a great offense. Our starting pitching has been great. Our bullpen has been great of late. We feel like if we keep pushing, we're going to get on the roll that we need.
"We're not where we want to be, but we know we can get where we need to be."
The Cardinals have had some gut-wrenching defeats, but those outcomes haven't doused the spirit of optimism that is still present. Asked if he had retained his optimism about this club, Matheny smiled slightly and replied:
"Since Day 1 to the last one. I think I'd probably have a different story if it was a different club. I'd probably say it differently. But I believe that this team is as good as anybody. They couldn't even convince me otherwise. I told them that before [in a meeting]: 'Don't waste your breath and your time, because you're not going to convince me that we're not as good as what I think we are.'
"The thing is, they know."
The Cardinals have the building blocks for success in place. They have the kind of pitching that could sustain a successful run. They have the belief in their own abilities. They have the recent evidence that they can go on a late-season tear that could take them all the way through October.
But at some point in the very near future, the Cardinals need to take all of this out of the realm of theory and make it their 2012 late-season reality.