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Cardinals rested and ready for second-half push

The Cards reached the All-Star break in better shape than most, but second-half questions still remain

ST. LOUIS -- Though the Cardinals reached the actual halfway point June 30, the All-Star break still represents an end as well as a beginning to their season.


"To me, it's one of those lines that we've crossed," manager Mike Matheny said while watching his team work out on a sizzling Thursday afternoon at Busch Stadium. "It has to be looked at like that because there was such an emphasis on pushing all the way through the break. The reward was a few days off, and now we have to reset our focus.


"We have the same expectations of what we were doing before."


What they've done is more than anyone could have expected. At 21 games over .500, they have the best record in the majors. They have outscored the opposition by 127 runs; no other team has a difference greater than plus-91. Their offense leads the NL, and their pitching staff has the third-lowest ERA in the majors.


But, of course, they still have questions.


What will they do before the July 31 trade deadline?


Though the Cardinals have no glaring weaknesses, history points to general manager John Mozeliak making an impact deal. Based on what he said Thursday, it likely would involve pitching.


"I don't know where we would chase for more offense," Mozeliak said. "I don't know where you would put it. From an offensive standpoint, we're a very good team."


So a starter, reliever or bench help, perhaps?


"We've left that very wide in terms of what we might try to chase," Mozeliak said. "When I think about the next couple of weeks, I think it's about us staying open-minded and seeing how the market evolves."


Will Matt Holliday be in the lineup Friday night against the Padres?


"We'll see," he said after taking batting practice for the first time since he left last Thursday's game in Chicago with a strained right hamstring.  


Holliday says BP went fine, but he has yet to try to run full speed. If he passes that hurdle Friday, look for him to be back in left field. Smart money, though, says he will be available to pinch-hit Friday and, if all goes well, return to left field on Saturday.


When will Chris Carpenter pitch again?


The rehabbing right-hander is set to start Saturday in Memphis, which would be five days after he threw 54 pitches in his first rehab start at Springfield.


The Cardinals continue to preach patience and have set no expectations on a possible return to the majors. Carpenter's status is not likely to affect the club's deadline strategy.


"What he did the other night certainly was a good step," said Mozeliak, who compared the outing to a first start in spring training. "In terms of making decisions between now and the 31st, it's hard to use him as a variable to factor into things."


The Cardinals are allowed to keep Carpenter on minor league rehabs for up to 30 days.  


Who takes the roster spot that opened when Keith Butler was sent to Memphis?


Righty reliever Fernando Salas attended the workout and is expected to be added to the 25-man roster Friday. Salas went on the disabled list May 22 with shoulder irritation and then struggled initially in Memphis after returning. Reports are he has thrown much better lately, Matheny said.


What is Shelby Miller doing with his 13 days between starts?


Besides getting a break to save some innings for the late season, the rookie right-hander said he has tweaked his mechanics to improve his command. He will throw his third and final side session on Friday before making his next start Tuesday against the Phillies.


Though Matheny said Miller expressed a bit of disappointment over his extended break, the 22-year-old said he sees the value in resting. He has worked 104 2/3 innings so far, though he has made it through the sixth only once in his past five starts. He is hoping to reach 180 innings for the season, "not including whatever we do in the postseason."


What about the shortstop?


The Cardinals remain firmly in support of rookie Pete Kozma, who lifted his average out of the .220s with three hits Sunday night.


"I feel a lot of what's on Pete is not fair," Mozeliak said. "If you look at our lineup, we should be able to handle somebody that's maybe not hitting .300. What he brings to the table defensively is great. The balance between him and (Daniel) Descalso has been working. I see why people bring it up, but he's done a very good job for us. I'm still bullish on him."


What are the plans for Carlos Martinez?


The team's top pitching prospect will remain in the bullpen, though Matheny did not rule out Martinez starting on July 27, the next time the Cardinals will need a fifth starter. (He didn't rule out Joe Kelly, either.)


The Cardinals do not figure to keep Martinez around for an extended period if he doesn't get much work. Remember, the club sent him down in May to stretch him out to start. They sent Keith Butler back to Memphis for that very reason after he appeared in only two games this month.


How's the second-half schedule shape up?


The Cardinals will spend a lot of time facing the division rivals right behind them. They play 14 games against the Pirates and 10 against the Reds from July 29-Sept. 8. As well as the Cardinals have played so far, their season could hinge on that six-week stretch.


"You'd think 21 games over .500, you'd have a little bigger lead," Holliday said. "We have only a one-game lead over Pittsburgh, five over the Reds. Both are really good teams and we play them a bunch. It's going to be an interesting second half."


Even though, after playing 93 games, it's considerably less than a half.


You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.