ST. LOUIS (AP) - Tony La Russa rapped his head several times, part a superstitious plea that the tough times are finally past for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Before the All-Star break, the Cardinals fielded their projected starting lineup only five times. Their manager discovered plenty of depth, with infielder Daniel Descalso, outfielder Jon Jay and especially closer Fernando Salas all stepping up.
The Cardinals somehow arrived at the break tied for the NL Central lead despite more than their share of bad breaks, and now they have a full team.
The Cardinals will probably be buyers at the trade deadline coming up at the end of the month. General manager John Mozeliak is seeking pitching depth.
"We've got about 2 1/2 weeks to try and make this club better," Mozeliak said. "We like what we have but if we can improve we'd like to try."
The hits began early, with co-staff ace Adam Wainwright lost in February with reconstructive elbow surgery. David Freese missed two months with a fractured left hand. Matt Holliday was out 25 games with a pair of ailments, and Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto both had lengthy absences.
La Russa soldiered on, too, through a tough bout with shingles.
"My hope against hope is normally you don't get blasted for six months like that," La Russa said. "So maybe we've used them all up and now we'll be - pause for head-tapping - able to catch some health for a long time.
"It wouldn't be a lot of fun to think we're going to have this kind of situation all year long."
Look at them now, healthy, rested and deep.
Albert Pujols tops the good news list after getting a week to hone his stroke following a remarkably fast recovery from a forearm injury that was supposed to keep him out until August. He homered on a three-hit game the day before the All-Star break.
"Obviously, I'm glad it's not taking a while to find that approach," Pujols said. "I feel good, I'm seeing the ball good. When you feel good at the plate, believe it or not, you don't think about where your hands are or your legs. You just see the ball and hit it."
The 3-4-5 core of Pujols, Holliday and Lance Berkman, who leads the league with 24 homers after a career-worst 2010, is among the best in the game. La Russa experimented with Freese batting second but now prefers him hitting behind Berkman, making Yadier Molina a dangerous seventh-place hitter.
Colby Rasmus decided to work on an inconsistent stroke with his father, Tony Rasmus, instead of batting coach Mark McGwire. The center fielder is batting .246 after a 4-for-22 homestand heading into the break, and La Russa insisted he didn't care who got Rasmus back on track.
"The stuff he's working on is coming from someplace else, and guys are free to do that," La Russa said. "If you have something or somebody else that you think works, you don't hold a gun to their head and say, 'No, no, you listen to these coaches and nobody else.' It's never worked that way."
Players who began the year as roster fill-ins helped keep the team in the running the first 91 games.
Descalso had several crucial hits and was strong defensively at third base. Jay is batting .304 and will provide a fourth quality outfielder for the stretch. Salas was the fourth pitcher to get a shot at the closer job after Ryan Franklin was demoted in April, and he has gone 16 for 18 in save chances.
"We played a lot of guys that didn't figure to get a lot of playing time and lot of them have come through," La Russa said. "We've had one big losing streak. We're making do, so I think it's been a heck of a first half."
Setup man Eduardo Sanchez is expected back soon, too.
As for the rotation, lefty Jaime Garcia (9-3, 3.22 ERA) earned a four-year contract extension during the break and Chris Carpenter (4-7, 3.85) has been dominant lately again after dropping seven of his first eight decisions. Neither will take the ball to start the second half Friday night in Cincinnati, though, slotted behind inconsistent Jake Westbrook (7-4, 5.34).
Westbrook seems a curious choice given his ERA is by far the worst on the rotation and he got clobbered by the Reds on July 6, falling behind 5-0 after 12 pitches and surrendering seven runs overall in 4 1/3 innings.
La Russa said he took the opportunity to rearrange the rotation so Kyle Lohse (8-6, 3.32) would pitch at New York next week and Kyle McClellan (6-6, 4.24) would get extra rest in his first year as a starter. Carried into August, Carpenter and Garcia would open a three-game series at division co-leader Milwaukee.
"It's pivoting around a couple people like Carp," La Russa said. "Sometimes it's more obvious what you should do, but this one was a little edge so I played it."