The St. Louis Cardinals have done an admirable job in the first three weeks of July by winning four of their five series to climb back toward the top of the National League Central Division, and now they have a chance to position themselves well for the final third of the season.
But they better take care of business quickly.
St. Louis finishes the month with eight games against teams with a losing record before they face the Milwaukee Brewers, Boston Red Sox (below .500 but still dangerous because of the recent history among the two franchises) and American League East Division-leading Baltimore Orioles.
August provides a mix of opponents with playoff hopes and those waiting for the season to end, but the September schedule features all but six games against divisional foes.
Thankfully, starting pitcher Michael Wacha has a chance to be back from the disabled list by that time, and All-Star catcher Yadier Molina could return for the final two weeks or so of the regular season.
The Cardinals might desperately need their help by that point, especially if general manager John Mozeliak can’t find a team to trade with before the July 31 trade deadline, but the schedule also should create a sense of urgency for the team right now.
St. Louis could take a lead of at least a few games over the Brewers, which are 2-9 in their last 11 games, by the time the two teams meet August 1 to begin a three-game series at Miller Park in Milwaukee.
Then, the Cardinals must survive August and hope to stay in contention until the injured reinforcements come back in the final month of the regular season.
The Cardinals have won 10 of their 16 games in July and entered play Tuesday a half-game behind the Brewers for the division lead, all while playing that entire stretch without Wacha and the final five games without Molina.
The 2014 season has been far from easy for the Cardinals. They have largely failed to live up to probably impossibly high expectations fans had after they went to the World Series and lost in six games to the Red Sox in 2013.
The team is tied for 16th in Major League Baseball in batting average (.252) and 29th in home runs with 63, ahead of only the Kansas City Royals (55). A record-setting .330 batting average with runners in scoring position in 2013 has dropped to .246, which is tied for 27th.
Still, the Cardinals are near the top of their division and in position to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season thanks in large part to a pitching staff that has the 3.39 earned-run average that is the eighth-lowest in baseball.
The team-wide struggles and injuries to key contributors might also give players such as rookie pitcher Carlos Martinez and rookie outfielder Oscar Taveras a chance to develop and gain much-needed experience in what is sure to be a pressure-packed couple of months to end the season.
If the Cardinals survive and clinch a berth in the postseason, those young players could be ready to provide meaningful innings in October because they would not be surprised by the intensity of the games nearly as much as if they were nothing more than September call-ups from the minor leagues.
The final two months of the season will likely provide another rollercoaster ride in the NL Central standings, so the Cardinals need to bank all the wins they can now so they don’t fall off later.