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Return home puts Cardinals back on track

After struggling while playing 26 of first 38 on road, Redbirds eye division lead

Maybe the St. Louis Cardinals knew what they were talking about all along. Maybe all they needed was to get back home for a few days and into a more normal routine. Planes, trains and automobiles can wear on the body, if not the mind.

That appears to be what happened with these Cardinals when they played 26 of their first 38 games on the road. In one five-game stretch, they played in three cities and had some day games following late-night travelling.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny attempted to tell us that he thought the schedule -- and the travel -- had been a factor. He said it would be interesting to look at the Cards again after they'd played 18 of 21 at Busch Stadium.

Still, when Matheny's club got back home on May 12 and promptly got clobbered by the Cubs, 17-5, he had a tough sell. That game, though, coming in a different city after another late-night flight, was like another road game.

In St. Louis, where every day of the year is baseball season, there was much hand-wringing. Would the Brewers sprint away with the National League Central championship? Would the Redbirds even get to October?

That was then. Regardless of the reason, these Cardinals (29-23) finally resemble the club most of us thought they'd be. In a span of just two weeks -- with only three road games -- they've won 10 of 13 games and closed the gap on the Brewers in the NL Central from 5 1/2 games to 1 1/2. In other words, first place could be a couple of days away.

Just as Matheny came close to predicting, these Cardinals don't resemble those weary travelers. Their offense has picked up -- from 3.7 runs per game when they were 19-20 to 4.5 during their current 10-3 run. Their pitching is way better, too, going from a 3.50 ERA to a 2.30 ERA. In this stretch, their rotation has been the best in baseball, going 7-1 with a 2.11 ERA.

So, was all that worry for nothing? Actually, it wasn't. These Cardinals aren't like last season's Cards. They're not going to be able to win the same way, either. To watch them now is to appreciate how historic their accomplishments were in 2013.

The Cardinals didn't win their 19th NL pennant by being lucky. I don't think that's exactly what you'd call it. But they did something that they're almost certainly not going to do again. Neither is any other team.

The Cards led the NL in runs (4.8 per game) despite hitting just 125 home runs. Only the Giants and Marlins hit fewer, and they were not good offensive teams.

The Cardinals did this by being the most efficient team in four decades. They took advantage of their opportunities by hitting .330 with runners in scoring position. Because they did it for six months, it would be ridiculous to call it luck.

But it was 48 points better than any other team (the Tigers were second), and 59 points better than any other NL team (Rockies). It was the best in the Majors in at least 40 years -- way better than when the 2007 Tigers and 1996 Rockies hit .311.

There simply was no way the Cards wouldn't come back to earth a bit. And unless they acquired more power, there was going to be a significant offensive decline.

That, there has been.

The Cardinals began Wednesday hitting .239 with runners in scoring position. Just as .330 was too high, .239 is too low.

That number will pick up as the season plays out, and as proven hitters like Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter do the things they've always done.

But the Cards still don't hit home runs. They're 29th in the Majors with just 28 home runs. Only new shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who has nine, has more than five.

That's what makes 21-year-old top prospect Oscar Taveras so intriguing to the Cardinals. He's hitting .323 with seven home runs and a .527 slugging percentage at Triple-A Memphis, and St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak says Taveras' time has just about arrived.

If only it were that simple. Where does he play? These are the NL champions we're talking about.

Taveras, who is ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the game, is a corner outfielder, but with Matt Holliday established in left field and Craig in right, there's simply no playing time. The Cards could put Taveras in center, but there would be a significant defensive dropoff from Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos.

On a team built around starting pitching, that switch would cost the Cardinals run. Mozeliak recently watched Taveras play some games in center, and so he is obviously sorting it out in his mind.

On the other hand, what's broken? Even with the scoring down from 4.8 runs per game to 3.9, St. Louis is still poised to slide back into first place.

That's no comfort to Mozeliak. He changed six of eight positions after the Cards got to Game 6 of the World Series last fall and obviously isn't afraid to keep making changes. This franchise didn't get to be one of baseball's most admired by running from change.

Taveras has the potential to be a dynamic presence, but how do they get him in there without weakening another area? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, reports of the Cardinals' demise were slightly exaggerated. Isn't that what home cooking is all about?

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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