Early schedule could help St. Louis Cardinals bury rest of the NL Central

Less than three weeks into the 2012 regular season, the St. Louis Cardinals entered play Saturday with a 10-4 record and already a four-game lead over the second-place Milwaukee Brewers. Based on the Cardinals’ upcoming schedule, that lead could grow quite large by the end of the month.

The Cardinals have faced divisional opponents in every game this season except Opening Day in Miami against the Marlins, and they won’t face a team outside the NL Central until May 7.

A crazy schedule that matches a team against divisional opponents in 27 of its first 28 games could make for a fantastic start to a season or a horrible start. For the Cardinals, it’s been a fantastic start that could quickly develop into runaway for the division title.

Granted, the Cardinals likely won’t continue to win 10 of every 14 games this season. They would near the 2003 Seattle Mariners mark of 116 wins at that pace. However, the Cardinals could have a sizable lead by May 7 even if they win slightly more than half of their remaining games through May 6. That’s because every game they play from now until May 7 will have a direct effect on the size of the Cardinals’ lead in the division.

Every time they win a game, it automatically drops one team another full game off the pace. There won’t be any nights where every team in the division wins or loses, thereby keeping the standings the same for two consecutive days.

The Cardinals also have a three-game set with the Brewers next weekend. If the Cardinals go into that series with the same lead in the division they have currently (four games), they could have a six-game lead in the division by the end of April.

Surely the Brewers (6-8) and the Cincinnati Reds (6-9) won’t continue to play sub-.500 baseball for long, but their lousy starts combined with a hot start from the Cardinals will make it tough for either team to catch the Cardinals. Even if they do catch up, it will likely take most of the season because they will both have to substantially rely on other teams to beat the Cardinals in order to make up ground in the standings.

Plus, the Cardinals are running through the division right now with starting pitcher Chris Carpenter on the disabled list and starting pitcher Adam Wainwright pitching terribly with a 0-3 record. On the offensive side, the Cardinals have battled injuries to first baseman Lance Berkman, third baseman David Freese and centerfielder Jon Jay.

Any fears fans had coming into the season with a new manager and the departures of former manager Tony La Russa and former first baseman Albert Pujols should be long forgotten. This team has shown that it can dominate teams both on the mound and at the plate. And when its stars are hurt, it has shown resiliency that will be key to consistently staying atop the standings throughout the season.

Bench players Matt Carpenter, Shane Robinson and David Descalso already made huge contributions to the early success of the team. With an elite lineup, very good pitching and solid backups, the 2012 Cardinals could very well put together a better regular season than last year when it won 90 games.

Plenty of factors could derail the Cardinals winning ways throughout the six-month season, but the first three weeks suggest the Cardinals might have full control of their destiny in September rather than begging for a massive collapse from another team to make the playoffs.

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