In many ways, Albert Pujols is the Cardinals. He has become the face of the franchise, ranking with other Cardinal legends-Stan Musial, Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock. He is also the best baseball player on the planet by any measure you prefer, as he leads the major leagues in EqA, VORP, and WARP3.

So what does the first baseman think about his team, one whose lineup has been bolstered significantly by general manager John Mozeliak since the season started? “I like this team a lot and I think we can go as far as we want to go if we keep working at it,” Pujols said. “I liked our team before we made the trades, and I like it even better now. We’ve brought in some guys who are not only good players, but winners who know how to play the game. I don’t really see any weaknesses now. There is no reason we shouldn’t win a lot of ballgames and play in October.”

The Cardinals have put themselves in position to return to the postseason for the first time since they won the World Series in 2006. They hold a three-game lead over the two-time defending division champion Cubs in the National League Central. A division race that looked at the All-Star break as if it were going to be a five-team scramble with everyone invited except the Pirates has instead turned into a two-team match race between the Cardinals and Cubs.

Though the Cubs were the prohibitive favorite coming into the season, manager Lou Piniella believes that distinction now belongs to the Cardinals. “Look, St. Louis is the team to beat,” Piniella said. “Let’s not lose sight of that. They’ve got a good ballclub, and they’ve added some firepower to their lineup.”

The Cardinals have made three key trades to bolster their lineup over the past two months, acquiring super-utilityman Mark DeRosa from the Indians to play third base, and then getting left fielder Matt Holliday from the Athletics and middle infielder Julio Lugo from the Red Sox. Holliday has been outstanding since the trade, producing a .414 EqA in his first 72 plate appearances with his new club. Lugo seems similarly rejuvenated, with a .333 EqA in 61 plate appearances. DeRosa’s EqA is just .262 in 99 plate appearances, but he has been bothered by a strained wrist and has still managed to smite six home runs.

“You’re looking at three guys who have really been major upgrades for us,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “Holliday has been everything you could ask for, and he’s very much like Albert in the way he goes about his business and plays the game. He’s a very dangerous bat in the middle of the order. DeRosa is a veteran, winning player who is playing through pain. Lugo does a lot of little things to help you win.” Added Pujols, “Our lineup is a lot more solid now. We have the ability to score a lot more runs, which is important, because our pitching staff is so good that we don’t need to give them a lot of runs.”

Holliday has been rejuvenated in his return to the NL. Though he did manage a .299 EqA with the Athletics, he was considered a disappointment after spending his entire professional career in the Rockies‘ organization. “I put way too much pressure on myself with Oakland,” Holliday said by way of explanation. “I knew they went out and got me with the hopes that I would be the guy that could put them over the top and win the division. I tried so hard to be that player that I pressed and wound up not playing the way I’m capable of playing. It was a tough lesson learned, and I’ve tried to apply it here. This time, I’m taking the approach that I’m just here to help out, and I’m a lot more relaxed.”

While Holliday has bolstered the offense, that is not the part of his new team that most impresses him. “I love the pitching we have here,” Holliday said. “We’re one of the fortunate teams that have a rotation with five guys who give you a really good chance to win every night. There aren’t a lot of teams that can make that claim and we’ve got a good, deep bullpen, too. Pitching is what ultimately wins for you.”

Reviewing that rotation, Adam Wainwright (5.8) is third in the NL in SNLVAR, Chris Carpenter (5.0) is eighth, and Joel Pineiro (3.3) is 22nd. Over in the pen, closer Ryan Franklin is fourth in the league with 3.2 WXRL on a staff that is third in the NL with an average of allowing 4.1 runs a game. “When I watch those guys pitch, I can’t help but think we might have a very special season here,” Holliday said.

Though the Cardinals are just eighth in the league in scoring with an average of 4.5 runs a game, and eighth as well in team-wide EqA (.262), the three additions provide hope that the production will increase in a pennant race. And there is always Pujols, with is .364 EqA, to shoulder the load.

Thus, it’s no wonder the special feeling Holliday has carries throughout the clubhouse. “It just seems like we feel we’re going to win every time we take the field,” second baseman Skip Schumaker said. “It’s a great feeling to have. We’re playing with a lot of confidence and we feel we stack up with anybody.”

The Dodgers have had relatively smooth sailing this season, as even the 50-game suspension that left fielder Manny Ramirez received from Major League Baseball for testing positive for PEDs hasn’t slowed them down. Their 69-45 record is the best in the NL, and their 6½-game lead in the NL West over the Rockies is the largest in any of the major leagues’ six divisions.

However, manager Joe Torre felt he needed to hold a team meeting on Sunday after the Dodgers lost to the Braves 8-2 at Dodgers Stadium to go 2-5 to wind up with their first losing homestand of the season. However, Torre’s tone wasn’t scolding or threatening. “What I try to do is just talk about perspective,” Torre said. “Sometimes you’re involved in the competition and you sort of lose perspective of where you are. I just want to give them my perspective. We really haven’t played well for a period of time, and we’re still controlling our own destiny.”

Torre’s speech had the desired effect as the Dodgers went into AT&T Park and won the first two games of a pivotal three-game series with the Giants that ends this afternoon. That pair of victories knocked the Giants 7½ games back in the NL West standings, all but ending their hopes of a division title.

“There’s not a World Series team that didn’t go through a bad stretch at one point,” Dodgers catcher Brad Ausmus told the Los Angeles Times‘ Kevin Baxter. “The important thing it to remember it’s not the end of the world. There’s a reason we’re in first place after four months: Because we’re a good team. There are 15 other teams who want our record in the National League.”

Torre had quite the run as manager of the Yankees from 1996-2007, as he took them to the postseason in all 12 seasons and won four World Series. However, one of the criticisms of Torre during his stint with the Yankees was that he blew out the bullpen by overworking his relievers. Though Joe Girardi failed to get the Yankees into the postseason last year in his first season after replacing Torre, he has guided them to the best record in the major leagues this season. The Yankees are 70-43 and lead the Red Sox by 5½ games in the American League East.

In the course of getting there, Girardi is being lauded for turning a bullpen that, beyond closer Mariano Rivera, was perceived to be a weakness to many mainstream observers coming into the season into a strong point. Girardi has pieced together a quality bullpen without having any of his pitchers ranking in the top 10 in the AL in relief innings pitched.

“The bullpen, to me, is something you really have to watch,” Girardi said. “You have to be careful that you don’t fall in love with one guy because then you wear him down and he can no longer be effective. The key is to be effective for the whole year, not just two weeks or a month.”

Girardi’s approach is not lost on his relievers. “Phillip Hughes is the eighth-inning guy but it’s not like he’s going to pitch every day,” right-hander Brian Bruney told the New York Post‘s Larry Brooks. “Everybody responds to pressure situations because we’re rested and ready. Girardi is careful with the way he uses us. He communicates directly with us more than any manager I ever played for.”

One of the most unique roster moves in baseball history occurred Monday night when the White Sox claimed Blue Jays right fielder Alex Rios off of waivers. The Blue Jays let the White Sox have him for the bother of taking on the remaining seven years and $69.835 million on his contract without receiving any players or case as compensation. “This is not a financial dump,” Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi offered up. “That’s not the message we’re trying to send here.”

Actually, a salary dump is exactly what it was. However, Ricciardi did give his reasoning for why he would allow one of his regular players to switch teams without compensation. “This enables us to have more financial flexibility,” Ricciardi said. “What’s happened since we did the contract (in April, 2008) is that the game has changed economically in so many ways in the last year. This allows us to get out from under a contract, and gives us more resources to do more for our club moving forward. In a lot of ways, cash is king going forward, especially in the environment we’re in and we’ll have some more money to address some needs we’re going to have.”

If the Blue Jays spend any of the money they saved by cutting tied with Rios, it will likely be in re-signing catcher Rod Barajas and shortstop Marco Scutaro, who are eligible for free agency at the end of the season. The Blue Jays feel they can fill Rios’ hole by moving Travis Snider into the starting outfield next season. He began this season as the Blue Jays’ left fielder, but he was sent to Triple-A Las Vegas after a poor start.

Scouts’ views on various major league players:

  • Tigers catcher Alex Avila: “He’s the type of player Jim Leyland will fall in love with. Even though he’s a kid just out of Double-A, he’s a gamer and he’s got talent. If I were a betting man, I’d bet he is the Tigers’ starting catcher coming down the stretch.”
  • Athletics designated hitter Jack Cust: “The league has figured him out and he can’t adjust back. He had a nice little run last year, but he is what is and that’s a Quad-A player.”
  • Angels designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero: “He looks like the old Vlad for the first time all season. That second trip to the disabled list seemed to do the trick. He’s has better bat speed and he just looks a lot fresher. There’s more life in his body.”
  • Marlins first baseman Nick Johnson: “He has really given Florida a big boost. He’s getting on base from the number-two spot of the batting order, and that has picked up their whole offense.”
  • Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche: “He’s always been a second-half hitter, and he’s in a comfort zone in Atlanta. He’s swinging the bat better than he has all year and is going to be a key guy for Atlanta down the stretch.”
  • Pirates left-hander Paul Maholm: “His numbers aren’t as impressive as last season, but his stuff is still the same and he’s a great competitor. People forget he is playing on a really young team right now and isn’t getting any offensive or defensive support. He’s still a good, young pitcher.”
  • Indians right-hander Justin Masterson: “They’re doing the right thing by using him as a starter because he has the pitches to go through an order three or four times. I don’t know if he’ll wind up being a number one in a rotation, but I think he can be a number two.”
  • Orioles left-hander Brian Matusz: “I really think he’s going to make a pretty seamless transition to the major leagues. He has really good mound presence for a young pitcher to go along with good stuff.”
  • Mets right-hander Bobby Parnell: “I know their options are limited but I really hope the Mets don’t blow this kid out by converting him from a reliever back to a starter this late in the season. He’s got a really special arm, and I think he’ll eventually become a top-flight closer.”
  • Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz: “He’s turned out to be a pretty good defensive catcher, but he’s regressing as a hitter. I really think the Phillies need to rethink the idea that he is a long-term solution.”
  • Dodgers left-hander Eric Stults: “When Los Angeles is counting on him in a pennant, it tells you it was a good thing they built a big early lead this year. The Dodgers can survive and get to the playoffs with him in the rotation, but it does show how little pitching depth they have.”
  • Giants utilityman Eugenio Velez: “I don’t understand why they keep playing him. He has good speed, but he doesn’t use it because he doesn’t get on base or steal bases when he does get on.”

Three series to watch this weekend, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

Rockies at Marlins, Friday-Sunday (August 14-16)
Jason Hammel vs. Josh Johnson, 7:10 p.m.; Aaron Cook vs. Rick VandenHurk, 7:10 p.m.; Jorge De La Rosa vs. Chris Volstad, 5:05 p.m.

Phillies at Braves, Friday-Sunday (August 14-16)
Joe Blanton vs. Jair Jurrjens, 7:30 p.m.; Cole Hamels vs. Kenshin Kawakami, 4:10 p.m (Fox); J.A. Happ vs. Javier Vazquez, 8:05 p.m. (ESPN)

Red Sox at Rangers, Friday-Sunday (August 14-16)
Jon Lester vs. Kevin Millwood, 8:05 p.m.; Brad Penny vs. Derek Holland, 8:05 p.m. (MLB Network); Junichi Tazawa vs. Dustin Nippert, 2:05 p.m. (TBS)