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Are the St. Louis Cardinals contenders or pretenders? We’ll find out in the next 11 games

With an impressive four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the St. Louis Cardinals have finally climbed their way back to first place after a swoon that saw the club a game under .500 just before the All-Star Game break.

But, contrary to the euphoria that emerged Thursday afternoon on social media, let’s not start printing those World Series tickets just yet.

There are lots of good things going on for the Cardinals right now. First, despite the declarations by some that Paul Goldschmidt has been the bust of the century have been proven to be ridiculous and short-sighted as he smashed his 22nd home run of the season through 100 games. It was the fourth straight game in which Goldschmidt collected a homer, something he never did while playing in the thin, dry air in Phoenix. I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty happy with any player who hit 30-35 home runs for a whole season. While he’s typically a .300 hitter, the former Diamondbacks slugger’s is batting .253, not exactly embarrassing numbers by any stretch.

Paul DeJong has also rebounded lately, smashing three home runs Wednesday against the Pirates. Kolten Wong’s stock is going up.. The offense is performing so much better that the front office told Matt Carpenter not to rush back to the big leagues, sending the struggling slugger to Class AA Springfield for a rehab assignment instead of quickly summoning him back to the majors after a stay on the injured list. It’s an interesting situation, to say the least, when a team tells a veteran it just signed to a three-year extension to cool his jets in the minors while a rookie plays his position in The Show.

Still, let’s remember that the Cardinals are headed into a much tougher stretch on the schedule.

Starting Friday, the Birds return to Busch Stadium to play three games against both the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, then head to California for two games against Oakland and three against the Dodgers. The Dodgers have the most wins in baseball, 67, while the Astros are tied for second with 66. The Cubs are tied with St. Louis for first place in the National League Central and the Athletics are 13 games over .500 in the competitive American League West, sitting in a wild card spot.

In short, this is the make or break portion of the Cardinals’ schedule. If they can take two out of three in the three-game series and split with Oakland, they’d almost certainly be all alone in first place at the end of July. If the team gets overwhelmed by tougher competition, the Cardinals could be back in third place to stay. Are they pretenders or contenders? We’ll find out soon.

The offense was never what I worried about with this Redbirds team. My concern is if it has enough front end pitching to contend. Fans are waiting to see what the team does at the trade deadline as rumors about this starting pitcher or that surround the team. But with a poor showing over the next couple of weeks, it will be too late to worry about that.