Tom Ackerman

ST. LOUIS (KMOX) — The missed opportunities, the maddening one-run losses. Too many runners left on base, too many mistakes.

How many games have the Cardinals given away this season? Too many.

Yet, they’re still in contention, even if it has to be a wild-card-or-bust pursuit from this point forward. Heading into Thursday’s game, the Cardinals are three games back in the National League Wild Card standings; they trail first-place Cincinnati by seven games in the National League Central division race.

Pitching has been a key factor for the Cardinals. The starters have done their part, from the efficiency of Kyle Lohse (only 1.5 walks per nine innings) to the strikeouts racked up by Lance Lynn and Adam Wainwright (both in the NL’s top ten with 123 apiece). Jake Westbrook (10-8, 3.79 ERA) continues to grind. Rookie Joe Kelly, who was in Single-A last season, has made nine starts and still sports an ERA under three (2.96). Will the starters wear down? That’s a legitimate concern. However, if Jaime Garcia (shoulder) returns this month — and returns to form — those fears will subside.

The bullpen is taking shape, with Mitchell Boggs (1.58 ERA) and Jason Motte (23 saves) providing an impressive 1-2 punch in the eighth and ninth innings. Newly-acquired reliever Edward Mujica figures to add to the righthanded depth along with Fernando Salas. Marc Rzepczynski and Brian Fuentes bring experience to the lefthanded side of the bullpen. Rookie southpaw Barret Browning (.059 BAA vs. lefties) is impressive.

But what will ultimately determine whether the Cardinals reach the playoffs is the team’s ability to cash in offensively. There’s too much talent to leave potential runs out there.

Manager Mike Matheny’s lineup boasts the best offense in the National League (1st in batting average, runs, hits, RBI, walks, OBP and OPS). The Cardinals have the talent to jump on opposing pitching. They’re healthy, for the most part, with several of their top producers swinging hot bats.

Matt Holliday’s bat? Scorching.

After an 0-for-12 skid dropped his batting average to .267 on June 15, Holliday responded the next afternoon with a 431-foot, first-inning home run off the Royals’ Bruce Chen. That was the first of four hits on the day for Holliday. And it was the start of a torrid streak.

Since June 16, Holliday has a .421 batting average with 11 home runs and 40 RBI. That’s in 39 games.

For the season, over the course of 101 games, Holliday is hitting .325 with 21 HR and 75 RBI. He’s tied with teammate Carlos Beltran (75 RBI) for the National League lead in that category.

Every player has his critics. But those that hound Holliday for a lack of production are way off base.

Yes, Holliday struggled out of the gate this season. After tearing up the Grapefruit League (which means nothing), he was below the Mendoza Line (.197 BA) on April 22, nearly three weeks and 71 at-bats into 2012.

Today, he’s in the top five in the National League in every major hitting category, except for batting average. (He’s sixth.)

Baseball, of course, is much more than statistics. It’s about a player’s health. His mental frame of mind. His leadership capabilities.

Know this: Holliday’s work ethic and effort as a baseball player — not to mention as a teammate, father and husband — gives him the highest respect in the clubhouse.

“He’s been real vocal lately about the urgency,” Matheny told reporters after last night’s 9-6 win in Colorado, featuring two home runs from Holliday. “And when you have somebody that’s leading, and their actions are backing up what they’re saying, it carries a lot of weight.”

Let’s face it: this is Holliday’s team now. When Albert Pujols departed and signed a free-agent deal with the Angels in December, it was Holliday who took over the coveted No. 3 slot in the batting order. It was Holliday who remained the team’s highest-paid player ($17 million per season). He’s a former batting champion, six-time All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger — and former MVP candidate.

“He’s the spine of the team,” Scott Boras said of Holliday, during our brief chat at the All-Star Game in Kansas City last month.

Yes, Boras is Holliday’s agent. But he’s also a close confidant and knows the native Oklahoman very well. With Holliday and his wife, Leslee, now settled into St. Louis — and owners of a World Series ring — Boras has seen the transformation in his client.

“(St. Louis) is kind of a place that was made for them,” Boras said. “It worked out great. I’m really happy about what Matt’s accomplished to date and what he can do in the future.”

Holliday’s seven-year, $120 million contract, signed in January 2010, remains one of the most important transactions of general manager John Mozeliak’s career.

“Mo had a real pulse on what he wanted from a player,” Boras said.

One morning in Jupiter, this past spring training, I discussed the Holliday contract with Mozeliak:

“When you think about that deal — and at the time, we had Albert Pujols on this team,” Mozeliak recounted, “the vision was really more about collecting elite players. Your hope was that Albert would have never left here.

“But with that said, when you look at the structure of this club now and you think about Matt Holliday as that key piece, you also have to say: what are the complements?” Mozeliak said. “And I’m talking elite players: that’s Yadier Molina, that’s Beltran, that’s (Lance) Berkman.

“When you look at our offensive capabilities, it doesn’t rest on any one man’s shoulders,” Mozeliak said. “It’s certainly going to have to be an aggregate in the sense of a group effort. But there’s no doubt that Matt is at a point in his career — and his age (32) — that I do think he’s one of those elite hitters in the game.

“And do I think he’s capable of carrying a team on his back? Yes, I do.”

Tom Ackerman is Sports Director at KMOX. He can be heard weekday mornings at :15 and :45 past the hour on “Total Information A.M.” Follow him on Twitter: @Ackerman1120.


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