ST. LOUIS -- As the Cardinals begin the second half of the season -- or, more accurately, the final 40 percent -- they're well ahead of all but the most optimistic preseason predictions. They're very much within sniffing distance of the National League Central-leading Cubs, and locked in a fight with the Brewers for the NL Wild Card.

They Cardinals have done it by playing a style of baseball that has won over many skeptical fans. They've been an entertaining club to watch, and on the rare occasions when they've been blown out, they've come back strong the next day. Twelve times they've lost the opener of a three-game series, and nine times they've come back to win the series.


All while playing at one point or another without Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Todd Wellemeyer and Jason Isringhausen, among plenty of other disabled-list denizens. For the second year in a row, St. Louis has taken punch after punch. This time around, though, the Redbirds have kept their heads well above water.

"I think if we had [just] survived, we'd be doing good," said manager Tony La Russa. "I think 10 [games over .500] is a little bit of thrive.

"We've played short quite a bit. Ten over is a decent number."

In the coming weeks, though, this trying season is likely to define itself. The hope is that the returns of Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, and returns to form by Wellemeyer and Isringhausen, propel the Cardinals to greater heights. In such a scenario, a legitimately good club gets even better.

The alternative, though, is that an undertalented club has scrapped and hustled its way to success. If that's the case, then the strain of the first half and the drain of playing undermanned will take its toll, and the Cards will fade in the second half.

There's little secret which view holds sway in the St. Louis clubhouse.

CARDINALS TOP PERFORMANCES
4/26, STL 4, HOU 3 -- Skip-ping home with a win
On a 3-2 count, Skip Schumaker singles to left field and scores Cesar Izturis for his first career walk-off.
Highlights: Watch
5/6, STL 6, COL 5 -- Ankiel shows off arm
Rick Ankiel records two outfield assists in the Cardinals' win.
Highlights: Watch
5/30, STL 6, PIT 5 -- Mather robs Nady
In his Major League debut, Joe Mather deprives Xavier Nady of an extra-base hit.
Highlights: Watch
6/1, STL 7, PIT 4 -- Ankiel lays out
Reminiscent of Jim Edmonds, Rick Ankiel makes a full extension on a diving catch in center field.
Highlights: Watch
7/2, Final score -- Glaus' walk-off
Glaus hits a home run that barely cleared the fence for the fifth walk-off home run of his career.
Highlights: Watch

"I think we are mentally stronger every day, every series, every game that we play," said Pujols. "That's how you define a team. ... We're mentally pretty strong. That's something that we haven't had in this organization in a long, long time. We have a strong mind where we can bounce back right away the next day."

In Pujols' eyes, the Cards' current roster is strong enough to stay in the hunt until the end.

"We're playing fine with the ballclub that we have," he said. "I think we have everything we need to win and to play with anybody. I think we just need to stay healthy. If we get Adam back, [Mark] Mulder hopefully back, we'll be in pretty good shape."

They may have to do it with something very close to what they have now, because a big-name rental player is an extremely unlikely addition. The team's front office has little interest in dismantling an improving farm system for a two-month roster fix.

That doesn't mean the Cards will sit still, and in fact some upgrades are likely -- especially in the bullpen. But club management believed in March that this team was good enough to win, even when few others felt the same way. That's still the view in July.

Over the next 66 games, the rest of the league will find out if the Cards were right.