For the Cardinals to see October again, these five players are critical
JUL 17, 2014 6:10p ET
ST. LOUIS -- A glass half-full view of the Cardinals moving forward: They are just one game out of the NL Central lead after gaining 5 1/2 games on the first-place Brewers in two weeks.
Half empty: Just 3 1/2 games separate the top four teams in the division, leaving the Cardinals to worry about the Reds and Pirates as well as the Brewers.
Half full: They already have hit more homers in 13 games in July (12) than they hit in 27 games in May (11).
Half empty: They still rank last in the NL in homers.
Half full: Lefty reliever Kevin Siegrist is close to returning.
Half empty: Yadier Molina and Michael Wacha remain out for weeks.
Half full: Matt Adams and Kolten Wong enter the second half on a hot streak.
Half empty: Allen Craig does not.
We could go on, but you get the point. How the Cardinals stand as they enter the post-break part of their season depends on your perspective.
But where they finish will be largely determined by how well these five players perform in the next 2 1/2 months.
Someone needs to lift the offense and the burden falls on Holliday, the senior member, the highest-paid and most proven hitter in the lineup.
At this point, it's not realistic to believe Craig will revert to his 2013 form and the Cardinals can't count on finding an impact bat before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
The rest of the regulars -- Adams, Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta, Jon Jay and Wong -- already are carrying their fair share and can't be counted on for much more.
That puts Holliday on the spot, and he has proven he can handle such a responsibility as recently as last year. After a sluggish start, he hit .348 with nine homers after the break in 2013 to finish at .300. His .265 batting average and 45 RBI this year are just off the .268 and 47 he put up in the first half last season, though he had 13 homers by now (and remember, that was less than expected).
A hamstring injury in the final weekend before the break put Holliday on the DL for the start of the second half last season. He's healthy this time around and he's also coming off a strong week. After Mike Matheny put him back in the three-hole six games ago, Holliday went 7 for 20 with four extra-base hits and seven runs. He needs many more weeks like that for the offense to move higher than 14th in NL scoring.
If he can perform at about 80 percent of Molina's efficiency, losing their All-Star catcher should not lead to the Cardinals' downfall. Of course, 80 percent of Molina is pretty darn good. Cruz would need to hit about .250 with a homer every 10 days or so, cut down about 30 percent of would-be basestealers and call for the right pitch about eight out of 10 times.
But Cruz is not lacking for motivation. This is the opportunity of his career. Keep the Cardinals in the pennant race until Molina returns and Cruz will prove he's capable of being more than a backup to the game's best catcher.
He has plenty of time. Molina is expected to be out eight to 12 weeks, and after hearing he completely tore a ligament in his right thumb, he's more likely to be on the high side of that timetable.
The big right-hander has been pitching like a No. 2 starter on an elite team for the past several weeks. But can he keep it up? With so much uncertainty around the back of the rotation, another second-half slip by Lynn could derail the entire pitching staff.
The Cardinals need someone besides Adam Wainwright to pitch deep into games on a consistent basis. Lynn can set the tone for the rotation when he starts the second-half opener Friday night against the Dodgers. With Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez following him, Lynn needs to work deep to prevent the bullpen from being overly taxed out of the gate.
He converted 28 save chances in the first half, but he blew four. If he fails that often in the second half, the Cardinals will be looking at four losses they can't afford.
Rosenthal's struggles mostly have come from a lack of command. He's averaging 5.7 walks per nine innings this season, compared to 2.4 last year.
The key is managing his workload. In his three worst outings, he either was asked to pitch a second inning, was working for a fourth straight day or had thrown 31 pitches the previous night.
He is scheduled to undergo his next MRI on Monday, and the outcome will be so highly anticipated the Cardinals could create a healthy revenue stream by charging for anyone to learn the results. Best case, he will be cleared to resume throwing and able to return by mid-August.
But if the "stress reaction" in his right scapula hasn't completely healed and he needs more rest, the odds of him pitching again this season become very long.
If that's the case, the Cardinals' offseason could end up a few weeks longer than they've grown used to in recent years.