It wasn't pretty at times. But the Cardinals could have lost ground during a tough eastern road trip.
Instead, after splitting with the Pirates and the Phillies, they made a spectacular rebound against a formidable Washington Nationals home to return home with a 6-3 record for the road trip and a 13-8 mark for the season.
That's good enough for first place over Cincinnati and the Brew Crew, the latter of which has won nine games in a row since losing their first two games in St. Louis.
While the offense has continued to sputter, the starting pitching has been extremely good lately and the Redbirds have at least found a temporary solution to their closer woes. Edward Mujica saved all three games of the Nats series.
For all their warts, the Cardinals haven't lost a series since their season-opening set in Arizona. They beat the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants on the road, took two of three against their top National League Central competition -- the Reds and the Brewers -- before splitting a rain-shortened series against the over .500 Pirates.
They've made it over an important early season hurdle. But the Cardinals need to keep getting better if they're going to make a run at a division title.
Fortunately, there's room to improve:
1) The bullpen has shown signs of life with Trevor Rosenthal coming around and Joe Kelly getting into the mix. Mujica has stabilized the ninth inning, at least for now. But if the Redbirds lose Jason Motte for the season after his next medical exam next week, they're likely going to have to look for a more permanent solution.
2) The offense hasn't come close to hitting on all eight cylinders so far. But it looks like it is coming into tune. Allen Craig, before wearing the collar Wednesday, had two hits in three games in a row. He's batting .289 with 10 RBIs in his last 10 games. Matt Holliday has five hits in his last two games to raise his season batting average to .279. Over the last 10 Cardinals games, he's hitting .324 with seven batted in. Carlos Beltran had two hits three games in a row and four times over five games to raise his season batting average to .282. He's also found his power lately. Over his last 10 starts he's batting .333 with three homers.
3) The defense can definitely do better. The Cardinals have flubbed the back end of a few double plays and on Wednesday they picked off a runner but failed to convert the out. The team needs to stop giving its opposition second and third chances to score runs. If the defense can iron out the wrinkles, it should pad the margin a little bit.