Paul DeJong say he wants to be a Cardinal for life
OK, so how good are these St. Louis Cardinals?
One thing is certain: They are fattening up on the Cincinnati Reds. Seven wins against their NL Central foe have helped power the Cardinals (13-8) to a season-high five games above .500.
But do we know enough to believe the trend will continue?
Can the Cardinals be a season-long factor in the division?
Or should the early expectations be tempered considering how much of the damage has come against the Reds (3-18), who are off to their worst start in franchise history?
Against teams with above.-500 records — the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Mets and Arizona Diamondbacks — the Cardinals are 6-8.
"We're winning games we need to win," slugging shortstop Paul DeJong said. "We're playing good defense, (getting) good pitching, getting timely hits. That's a recipe for wins. We're just going to keep playing together as a group and see how far we can take this."
DeJong, whose three-run homer in the seventh busted open the Cardinals' 9-2 win Sunday against the Reds, doesn't anticipate a falloff against teams like the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates, who occupy the next six games of the schedule.
"We expect to win every game," DeJong said. "We're going to keep that same attitude, no matter who's out there, whether it's the Reds or some other first-place team. We're just going to go out there and play our game.
"There's going to be tests all year. In our current situation, we're winning the games we're supposed to win, and that's all we can really do. We're going to expect to win, no matter who we're playing. We're going to leave it at that."
Certainly, the Cardinals have done what it takes to gain traction. Beating up on inferior opponents has been a key to many championship teams through the years.
It's only part of the formula, however. Somehow, some way, the Cardinals will have to fare better against the teams that are expected to contend: the Cubs and Brewers. Last year, St. Louis was 13-25 against them.
And this year, the upstart Pirates (12-10) are playing like a team that wants to be in the mix.
The Cardinals have been solid in every department thus far, with their hitting, pitching and defense all ranked in the upper half of the NL. They are tied with Colorado for most home runs in the NL with 30.
But again, the Reds are a reason. St. Louis has outscored Cincinnati 44-17. The Reds have not scored more than three runs in any of the seven games. They are ranked last in the league in home runs, last in runs scored and next-to-last in ERA.
Are the Cardinals ready for sterner tests?
"We're still going to go out there with the same mentality," first baseman Jose Martinez said. "We've started on the right foot. Even though baseball can turn around quickly, we're not backing down and we're going to stay positive the whole way."
The fans desperately want to believe the Cardinals are for real, and many of them already seem convinced that is the case.
Left fielder Marcell Ozuna is a huge addition to the batting order. Center fielder Tommy Pham could be a dynamic player. Martinez is a far better hitter than anyone expected. DeJong, despite a high number of strikeouts, is a long-ball threat. Catcher Yadier Molina is, well, Yadier Molina, the future Hall of Famer who is off to a sizzling start.
Defensively, the Cardinals are strong up the middle, including Kolten Wong at second base. Wong isn't hitting, but already is stockpiling an impressive number of defensive highlights. And moving Dexter Fowler from center field to right made all the sense in the world.
The starting pitching depth has been adequate enough to handle two stints on the disabled list by Adam Wainwright. The bullpen will soon gain another much-needed lefty, Brett Cecil or Ryan Sherriff, to join Tyler Lyons.
Versatility is a plus, too, among the relievers. Fireballing Jordan Hicks, Bud Norris, Luke Gregerson and Greg Holland all are capable of recording the final three outs, or could be used situationally prior to the ninth.
"The old one-game-at-a-time thing really is how we're going about it," said manager Mike Matheny, whose poker face never gives away his emotions. "We make the adjustments each day that we've got to make, come out and get on the shoulders of our starter, first of all. They've got to set the tone. Then (we must) put together good at-bats.
"We don't look too far backwards, too far forward. Keep respecting the opponent, respect ourselves and play the game the right way."
So far, it's been enough. But the Cardinals won't see the Reds again until June. They'll need to find another team or two to pick on.