ST. LOUIS (AP) — Tony La Russa sees plenty of parallels between the 2012 Cardinals and last year's crazy comeback World Series champions.
With a twinkle in his eye, La Russa notes both teams were six games above .500 heading into the second half of the season. The old skipper has seen his share of games, and agrees with his rookie successor, Mike Matheny, that there's plenty of untapped potential.
Of course, everyone knows what happened last fall.
"Look at how many hits they took," La Russa said in Kansas City before managing the National League's 8-0 romp over the American League in the All-Star Game. "I think they've done a real good job of hanging in there with adversity. The second half is going to be very exciting and they're going to be a part of it."
The Cardinals are 46-40 and in third place in the NL Central, but just 2½ games behind the surprising Pirates heading into a three-game series at second-place Cincinnati that starts on Friday night. Though co-ace Chris Carpenter is out for the year with a nerve injury to his shoulder with surgery scheduled for July 19, they're about to get Lance Berkman back from knee surgery and left-hander Jaime Garcia is expected to rejoin the rotation next month.
"I'm sure I'm driving people crazy with my optimism, but to me the best is still there somewhere," Matheny said. "Hopefully we can put it together for a long time."
Whatever their problems, they have nothing to do with the missing Albert Pujols. There's been more than enough offense.
The Cardinals spent the Pujols money wisely on two All-Star starters, right fielder Carlos Beltran and shortstop Rafael Furcal. Beltran leads the National League with 65 RBIs, is among the leaders with 20 homers and made it to the second round of the Home Run Derby on Monday. Furcal is the most productive NL leadoff man with 36 RBIs, and has one of the majors' strongest arms at his position.
Beltran got a warm reception in Kansas City, where he began his career.
"I enjoyed every moment," Beltran said. "It's like they haven't forget the good years I had here, even though it was eight years ago."
Counting catcher Yadier Molina, who missed the final series heading into the break on bereavement leave, there are six St. Louis All-Stars. Matt Holliday and David Freese saw action as reserves on Tuesday and Lance Lynn is an 11-game winner in his first season in the rotation as Carpenter's replacement.
"Obviously, you miss Albert," Holliday said. "But Carlos has had an Albert Pujols-type first half."
First base offense has been robust. Though Berkman has played just 13 games, Allen Craig has 13 homers and 44 RBIs in just 46 games — 28 of them at first base. Matt Carpenter also had a productive stint there.
When Berkman comes back, Matheny's task will be shoehorning as many bats as possible into the lineup. He used Carpenter at second base one game the first half after giving him plenty of early practice at that spot. It's not inconceivable that Craig could appear at that spot down the road, although he hasn't spent much pre-game time working there.