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Five Keys to the Cardinals' Second Half

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Hey, it's a key, it works. (Also a forgotten classic of power pop you should totally pick up if you ever see it like at a yard sale or something.)
The second "half" of the baseball season kicks off for the Cardinals tonight (and I put "half" in quotes because technically we passed the halfway point about two weeks back, but that's just how things work in baseball), as they open up an eight-game homestand against the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies

The first half of the season was, in a single word, frustrating. The Cards came in to the season riding a wave of high expectations after signing Matt Holliday to a long-term deal and bringing back much the same team that made such an exciting run to the playoffs in 2009, only with a full season of Holliday and an improved rotation. This was a team meant to win and win big. 

Those expectations went even higher as the Redbirds burst out of the gate at a gallop; suddenly the 2010 team was the subject of comparisons to the 2004 and 2005 teams, 100-win behemoths each. 
On the May 3, the Cardinals won the first of a four-game set in Philadelphia, and their record stood at 18-8, ten games over .500 less than a month into the season. Extrapolating that 18-8 out over a full season gives you a pace of ~112 wins. No doubt about it, the 2010 Cardinals are a special, special team, we all thought. 

Sadly, things haven't gone quite so well since then. The Cards lost the next three straight to the Phillies, and that's pretty much been the pattern ever since. Inconsistent performance has been the rule for this team, as they come out of the All-Star break just six games above the break-even mark. Over the first 26 games, the Cardinals were 10 games over .500; they've gone 4 games under in the next 62. 

So what do the Cardinals need to do to get back to that early-season winning form, you ask? Well, never fear, I've come up with a handy list of five key things that need to happen for the Cards to win big in the second half of the season. If these things all happen, I think they absolutely win the division and probably make a nice run in the playoffs as well. If only some of these things happen, they probably eke out a division win, but it won't be easy, and I don't think we see much good in October. And if none of these things happen, well, let's just hope at least some do, alright? 

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1. Chris Carpenter Must Stay Healthy -- Over the first half of the season, Chris Carpenter has been very good, though not quite as scarily dominant as we've seen in years past. His last two starts were not nearly so good, and whether the issue is, as pitching coach Dave Duncan has said, mechanical, or if there perhaps is some problem relating to the line drive Carp took off his forearm will be an important consideration going forward. If those two rough starts were just a blip on the radar, and Carpenter is fine, then the Cards are pretty close to fine, too. If he misses any time, though, things get very, very ugly very, very fast. 

2. Brad Penny Must Get Healthy -- Actually, this should probably be, "Brad Penny or Kyle Lohse Must Get Healthy," but I'm still extremely leery of counting on Kyle Lohse for anything at the moment, even though the current reports seem to indicate Lohse might very well be back before Penny. Regardless, though, Lohse has had a surgery for which there is almost no precedent in the annals of baseball, and until I physically see him producing I remain skeptical. Plus, Penny is a better pitcher than Lohse has ever been or will ever be. 

The reason we need at least one of these guys to get healthy is this: I believe the Cardinals can win with Blake Hawksworth in their rotation. It's not ideal, by any means, as I don't think Hawksworth will ever be more than a fifth starter, but if that's all he is then you're alright. The Cards can NOT, however, win with both Jeff Suppan and Blake Hawksworth in the rotation, and probably not with Suppan at all. Sure, Suppan has come in and soaked up some innings, which is really all the Cards needed him for anyway, and that's just fine. I wasn't at all pleased when they brought him in, but I suppose someone had to take those innings. The fact is, though, you simply can't punt every fifth day if you plan on winning a division with an actual competitor fighting you, and that's essentially what the Cards are doing now on days when Suppan pitches. 

If the Cards can't get at least one of their two injured starters (preferably Penny), back and shunt Jeff Suppan off to the side somewhere, John Mozeliak just may need to seriously consider making a deal to bring in another pitcher. 

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