Originally posted on Fox Sports Midwest  |  Last updated 5/3/12
ST. LOUIS They could get used to this. Their season is just a month old certainly not enough time to peek past the summer and consider the fall but the St. Louis Cardinals' place atop the National League Central could become comfortable. Through 25 games, the defending World Series champions have shown little has changed since red-and-white confetti was swept from Busch Stadium on a chilled night last October. Despite a 6-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday, they own a 16-9 record, one of the best in baseball. They have won seven of eight series. They hold a 3 12-game lead in the NL Central before starting a six-game road-trip against the Houston Astros and Arizona Diamondbacks. Sure, it's early, and that must be considered before all else. The Cardinals' 14-8 record in April was a surprise after so many unknowns How would they look with first-year manager Mike Matheny? (Strong.) How would Albert Pujols' departure affect the lineup? (Not much.) but the answers reveal a rising favorite within a floundering division. And they're only getting started. For St. Louis, May could mean more opportunity to create separation. "There's always room to grow, man," Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran told FOXSports.com. "We're just starting the season, and we're playing good baseball. Sometimes as a team you go through ups and downs. Right now, we're playing at a very high level." Yes, they are. Beltran said those words the morning after his career-high seven RBI, four-hit and two home-run night on Wednesday clinched another series victory over a division opponent. By taking two of three games against the Pirates this week, the Cardinals hold a 15-9 record against the NL Central. Their view from the top was pleasing before play Thursday. They were the only team in the division that didn't own a record below .500. They did it with steady play both at home (8-3) and on the road (8-5). They did it with key names such as ace Chris Carpenter (shoulder), first baseman Lance Berkman (calf) and outfielder Allen Craig (knee) missing significant time. Certainly, the Cardinals will struggle. The season is young, and slumps happen during a grueling 162-game schedule. But for now, with their identity still very much under development, they have reason to be confident with where they stand. "Berkman's on his way back. We've got Craig back now," Cardinals pitcher Lance Lynn said. "We're starting to get all the pieces of the puzzle back together. We're still winning ballgames with certain guys out. It shows you we've got depth when we need it. We've got some good guys coming back, and we're looking forward to it." How have they done it? A quick glance at statistics through 24 games shows why: They led all of baseball in RBI (131), batting average (.290) and on-base percentage (.821). Meanwhile, they were second in runs (135), hits (243) and team ERA (2.81). Numbers only tell part of the story, though. The Cardinals jumped to an early NL Central lead because little has changed with their approach to business. There might be a new style of leadership in the manager's office. There might be some new faces in the clubhouse as well as some notable absences. But the attitude and expectations that drove the franchise to its 11th World Series crown last fall remain. Matheny has made his tunnel vision clear. Before the loss Thursday, he spoke about how he approaches the season's challenges day-by-day "I don't have monthly goals," he said. "I don't have season goals. We just have daily ones." The series victories are a sign that the Cardinals are growing under his guidance. But like his predecessor, he seems driven by results of the moment, and that outlook is shared in the clubhouse. "I don't think there are very many surprises," Cardinals infielder Daniel Descalso said. "I think we expected to come out. I think we expected to play like this. I know a lot of people in the media or outside this clubhouse didn't give us that kind of chance. But I think everybody in this clubhouse knew what kind of team we had, and this is what we expected to do." To think, the Cardinals' lead in the NL Central could be even larger. The bullpen squandered leads against the Chicago Cubs on April 23 and 24. A loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on April 29 could have gone the other way if St. Louis hadn't batted 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position. Much is yet to be learned about this team, of course, but May will teach us more. The Cardinals will see the Astros and Cubs again. The rest of the month's schedule includes first looks against the Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies. The prevailing thought in the Cardinals clubhouse was that their April was good but had the potential to be great. They had a chance to finish 16-6 even 17-5 wasn't out of the question. Now, they have entered May trying to maintain the focus that made them successful last month. If they do, the rest of the NL Central could struggle to keep pace. "We've been very clear that we're not thinking any further than today," Matheny said. "Being able to look back and realizing that guys have played well and have the advantage to play well against the (NL) Central that's a nice start. Those kind of things can go away real fast. You have to be careful with how you go about it." Caution is a healthy attribute to have. But moving through the early part of May as the class of the NL Central is nice as well.
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