ST. LOUIS — Up to now, the Cardinals haven’t scored as much or pitched as well as last year’s team. But still they head into the stretch in a better place than in 2013: First place.
The Cardinals bounced between first and second for much of 2013 before moving into the top spot for good on Sept. 7. They stayed there with a 19-7 month during which they led the NL in runs scored and ERA.
Whether they stay in first place the rest of this season will hinge largely on much the same cast that led them last September. Allen Craig, remember, missed most of the month and Carlos Beltran faded down the stretch. It was the trio of Matts — Carpenter, Holliday and Adams — who lifted the offense while Adam Wainwright, Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn anchored the rotation. While Kelly is gone, his replacement in the rotation, John Lackey, appears capable of a strong finish.
As uneven as this season has been for the likes of Holliday and, lately, Wainwright, many of the Cardinals remain in position to put up numbers similar to 2013. Let’s look at the six mentioned above.
— Holliday. A strong second half helped him finish last season with a .300 batting average, 22 homers, 103 runs and 94 RBI. After a torrid weekend, Holliday has put himself in position to finish 2014 with comparable stats. He’s not likely to lift his .269 batting average 31 points and, with 72 runs, he would need to average more than one a game to reach his 2013 total. But he begins September with more RBI than he had at this point last season (81-71) and almost as many homers (16 to 18). His average a year ago was .285 when the month began.
— Carpenter. No one expected him to match his breakout totals of 126 runs, 199 hits and a .318/.392/.481 slash line. But he is in line to come close enough to again be considered the top leadoff hitter in the league. With 89 runs, Carpenter should reach triple digits again (he entered last September with 100) and he has a chance to get his .377 OBP to last year’s number (he entered last September at .382).
— Adams. He is in a much different place than last year, when he did not play everyday until Craig was injured in September. After five months as the regular in 2014, Adams looks like he’s wearing down after hitting .238 with just one homer in August. Considering this is his first season of playing every day, such a letdown should not be a surprise.
He already has piled up 165 more plate appearances than he finished with in 2013, but his .294 batting average is about all that has been improved (.284 last year). Even his .322 OBP in 2014 is less than last year’s .335. With 13 homers, Adams needs five more to surpass his total from 2013.
— Wainwright. Anyone who has raised red flags over his recent scuffles can find comfort looking at his 2013 season, when August was his worst month, by a long shot. He went 2-2 with a 4.78 ERA in five starts last August, compared with 2-4 with a 5.17 ERA in six starts this time around.
Last year, Wainwright rebounded in September by going 4-1 with a 2.84 ERA. If you think fatigue is an issue this year, Wainwright has pitched 12 fewer innings going into the final month than in 2013.
At this point last year, Wainwright had pitched 200 2/3 innings with a 15-8 record and 2.96 ERA. This year, he’s at 188 innings with a 15-9 record and 2.59 ERA.
— Lynn. No Cardinal has shown more improvement than the 27-year-old right-hander, and no month better illustrates that than August. He had a 5.84 ERA and 1-4 record in six starts last August. This August: 3-0 with a 1.99 ERA in five starts.
He rebounded last September to finish the season 15-10 with a 3.97 ERA. With a 13-8 record and 2.85 ERA, he just needs to stay the course to finish 2014 with his best numbers yet.
— Lackey. He hasn’t enjoyed a particularly good September since 2009, though last year’s 4.98 ERA down the stretch likely had something to do with him being in his first season back after Tommy John surgery.
He will be hard pressed to match Kelly’s finish of a year ago, when he went 4-2 with a 2.10 ERA in six September starts. But if Lackey can repeat his August — throw out the Baltimore start and his ERA was 2.45 — and he will finish with his best season since his days with the Angels.
More to the point, he can help keep the Cardinals in first place.