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The problems started early for the Cardinals, and they've never really ended. Right-hander Adam Wainwright, ace of the pitching staff, blew out his elbow during the early days of spring training and underwent season-ending Tommy John reconstruction surgery. Closer Ryan Franklin turned into a pumpkin on Opening Day, never regained his form and was eventually released in June, leading to a bullpen that is still somewhat in disarray.

Third baseman David Freese missed 53 games after undergoing surgery for a broken hand, left fielder Matt Holliday sat out 23 games because of an appendectomy and then a strained quadriceps, and first baseman Albert Pujols again showed he is not mortal by missing just 15 days after a suffering a broken wrist, an injury that normally causes someone to miss six weeks.

Yet the Cardinals are tied with the Pirates for first place in the National League Central, one percentage point ahead of the Brewers and three games in front of the Reds.

How have they done it? Second baseman Skip Schumaker gives much of the credit to manager Tony La Russa.

"We have a manager who has been through a lot in his career," Schumaker said. "He's kept positive through the whole thing. A lot of guys have stepped up, and a lot of young guys have come through. A lot of that comes back to the manager, because he is putting those guys in situations where they can succeed and gain confidence."

La Russa certainly has Hall of Fame credentials, as he ranks third all-time with 2,692 wins, 71 away from John McGraw, who is in second place. La Russa always seems to enjoy the challenge of managing the most when the odds seemed potentially stacked against him. Yet he believes the key has been the mental makeup of his players.

"It's a special group of guys, who, character-wise, are as good as it gets," La Russa said. "It's not just the injuries that we've had to overcome, but more than that. We'll lose a tough game and these guys will come back the next day and you can't even tell what had happened the day before. We've been in situations where we've lost a few games and could have fallen into a rut, but they are always the same, and they are always ready to play."

The Cardinals have had some young players step into voids, particularly rookie Fernando Salas at closer, who has a 3.21 FIP in 48 innings. Outfielders Allen Craig and Jon Jay have also played well, first when Holliday was injured and again now that center fielder Colby Rasmus has fallen out of favor. Craig, who has been out since June 8 with a broken kneecap, has a .337 True Average in 122 plate appearances and should come off the DL later this week. Jay has a .278 TAv in 275 PA.

Holliday is having a fine season with a .330 TAv, and left-hander Jaime Garcia (2.92 FIP) and right-handers Chris Carpenter (3.25) and Kyle Lohse (3.75) have all combined to cover for the absence of Wainwright.

Yet the biggest contributor has been right fielder Lance Berkman, who has a .356 TAv and 27 home runs. It was seen as a gamble when the Cardinals signed Berkman to a one-year, $7 million contract as a free agent last winter. He was not only coming off the worst season of his 13-year career—the 35-year-old had a combined 1.3 WARP for the Astros and Yankees—but he was being asked to play regularly in the outfield for the first time since 2004.

"You've got to give our general manager (John Mozeliak) a lot of credit because he did a good job of indentifying some of our weaknesses and addressing them, especially in the case of Lance," Schumaker said. "In my opinion, he has been the MVP of the National League Central."

"What he has done is make our lineup deep enough to where we can lose a guy here or there and still be competitive," La Russa said. "He's been great. He's been a real constant. He's driven in a lot of runs and played well defensively."

Berkman’s surprising success has compensated for a down season—relatively speaking—by Pujols. The three-time NL MVP has a .304 TAv, 38 points below his career mark. However, Berkman has also been a presence off the field, something Mozeliak was banking on by signing him and shortstop Ryan Theriot to change a clubhouse mix that had gone stale.

"He's been one of our leaders, the guy who gets everyone together for dinners on the road and does the things that veterans should do," Schumaker said. "He speaks up when it's needed, but he really keeps things loose. He's a funny guy, but even more importantly, he's just a good guy, a really likeable guy."

Of course, Berkman would be even better-liked if he could help deliver a division title, though it looks like the Cardinals will have to beat three teams to win it.

"It could happen where somebody gets hot and can't do anything wrong and breaks it open, but I think it's going to be a tight division down to the end," La Russa said.

"People said the National League Central was going to be like this at the beginning of spring training, and so far that is how it's been," Schumaker said. "Milwaukee is not going away. Cincinnati is not going away, because it is the defending division champ. Pittsburgh is at the top for a reason. And I know we're not going away. We haven't let anything stop us so far this season, and we're going to keep on playing hard until the end and hopefully we're on top."

Rumors and Rumblings: The Brewers’ trading might not end with Francisco Rodriguez, as they are also interested in Rays right-hander James Shields, who would join off-season acquisitions Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum and Yovani Gallardo and veteran left-hander Randy Wolf in a potentially devastating rotation. The Rangers, Reds, and Tigers are also suitors for Shields… The Tigers also have interest in Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, as do the Red Sox, Indians, Brewers, and Rangers… The Rays have put center fielder B.J. Upton on the trading block after calling up top prospect Desmond Jennings last Friday and will also listen to offers for designated hitter Johnny Damon, even though he wants to finish his career in Tampa Bay…  The Padres are willing to move third baseman Chase Headley in the right deal… The Twins are trying to trade right-hander Kevin Slowey after activating him from the disabled list and optioning him to Triple-A Rochester… The Braves are looking for right-handed relief help… Owner Jeffrey Loria wants an experienced manager to lead his Marlins into their new ballpark next spring and hasn't ruled out bringing back 81-year-old interim skipper Jack McKeon… Angels coach Dino Ebel clocked rookie outfielder Mike Trout at 3.82 seconds from home to first recently, which is just about breaking the sound barrier for a right-handed batter.

Scouts' views:

Astros second baseman Jose Altuve: "I know it looks like the Astros rushed him to the big leagues, but I think he can hit major-league pitching right now. The biggest adjustment for him is going be on defense. He's going to need to adjust to the speed of the game."

Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro: "Mike Quade is harder on Castro than the rest of his players, but I think that's a good thing in this case. The kid has phenomenal talent, but he gets a little lazy and careless at times. If Quade can teach him to stay focused, it will at least be one of the few good things to come out of this season for the Cubs."

Royals right fielder Jeff Francoeur: "I think he would make a great pickup for any contender looking for a right-handed-hitting outfielder. He mashes lefties, he's holding his own against righties this year, and he's got a gun for an arm, so you can't run on him."

Orioles right-hander Alfredo Simon: "I'll give him credit for being able to block out distractions. Who knows what is going to happen with his court case in the Dominican [where Simon was accused of but not charged with shooting a distant cousin to death during a New Year's Eve celebration.] Yet he's been throwing the ball very well, and I see better mound presence from him than in the past."

Athletics catcher Kurt Suzuki: "He's the type of guy you love to have on your team. He's energetic and takes charge of that pitching staff. You can tell he loves to play. What worries me, though, is he is going to burn out early in his career. He hates to take days off, and all the wear and tear he's already put on his body is going to catch up with him as he gets older."