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It's make or break time for the Cardinals

It seems like baseball fans spend 80 percent of the season telling each other that it's too early for must-win games.

But the Cardinals, officially, have reached put up or shut up territory.

They played like world beaters in the first half of the season and like egg beaters ever since. But they have a chance to prove their mettle agains three playoff teams over the next couple of weeks.

The Redbirds can make life miserable for the Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates. Or they can allow those teams to make life for them. We've officially reached the lightning round where scores can change quickly. A win Thursday night against Atlanta and the Cardinals find themselves back in a tie for first place. They lose and they find the Reds crawling all over their backs trying to put them in third.

I don't know if the Cardinals are worn down, complacent or over-matched. But if playing these teams doesn't motivate them, nothing will. And if they can't compete with the top teams in the National League, they probably don't deserve to be in the playoffs.

Regardless of the loss of Chris Carpenter, Rafael Furcal, Jason Motte and Jaime Garcia, I still believe the Cardinals have the most talent and the best leadership of the teams they're competing against for playoff position. They just need to find a way to put it all together and make one final push toward October.