ST. LOUIS (AP) - Yadier Molina is an MVP candidate, Adam Wainwright is back in ace form and Carlos Beltran is playing like a kid. And that's only half the six-player All-Star contingent that led the St. Louis Cardinals to the best record in the majors at the break.
The Cardinals have done enough things right, leaning on rookies and resiliency, to compensate for some serious personnel blows. They're 21 games above .500 entering a six-game home stand that starts Friday against the Padres.
Getting there hasn't been a smooth ride for second-year manager Mike Matheny and general manager John Mozeliak. They've had to fill two rotation spots on the fly, find a replacement closer and endure dry patches from the National League's best offense.
The Cardinals figure to be in the market for starting pitchers at the trade deadline, unless they continue to get results from the kids who've replaced Jaime Garcia, out for the season, and Chris Carpenter, who has yet to make his 2013 debut. Carpenter is trying to come back from a nerve injury complicated by lower back woes and remains an unknown quantity after throwing 2 2/3 innings in his first rehab start earlier this week.
After some searching, a replacement closer was found for Jason Motte, who had elbow surgery this spring. Former middle reliever Edward Mujica saved his first 21 chances and was an All-Star.
"We've had adversity," Matheny said. "We've had plenty of things not go exactly how we wanted to. It's just important to keep playing the game."
No one's been able to keep St. Louis down. After dropping eight of 11 and giving up the NL Central lead, the Cardinals won eight of 11 heading into the break and have a one-game lead on the Pirates - the team with the majors' second-best record.
"We played three games and we battled," Marlins All-Star pitcher Jose Fernandez said after Florida got swept in St. Louis earlier this month. "We almost got them."
Wainwright (12-5, 2.42) is tied for the league lead in wins. He's two wins shy of last year's total, when he returned quickly from elbow reconstruction and at times struggled with control woes.
"I know when I'm healthy where I stack up in the league, I feel like I'm in that echelon," Wainwright said. "I don't say that to be cocky, that's just the confidence I have in myself. Going through what I went through last year I learned a lot how to pitch when you're not at your best."
Lance Lynn (11-4, 4.00) reached double-digit victories for the second straight year, too. But pitchers nobody was counting on are perhaps the biggest factor.
Touted prospect Shelby Miller is among the top rookies with a 9-6 record and 2.92 ERA and Trevor Rosenthal has closer stuff as the setup man after a strong debut last fall. But expectations were not high for John Gast and Tyler Lyons, who each won their first two major league starts, and relievers Seth Maness (5-1, 2.67) and Kevin Siegrist (0-0, 0.69).
Overall, the Cardinals have used a major league-high 11 rookie pitchers who have combined for 20 wins.
Molina's calming presence and strong arm behind the plate have been a major plus, to say nothing of his .341 average that's makes him the first catcher since Mike Piazza in 1996 to lead the league in hitting according to STATS.
Teammates need no prompting to promote Molina for MVP.
"I don't think there's any doubt about that," fellow All-Star Allen Craig said. "The way he controls the game out there is pretty impressive and obviously there's his hitting and clutch hitting.
"I just think he's taken his game to a new level."
Former manager Tony La Russa said numerous times Molina's defense and game management were so important any offense was a bonus. The Cardinals signed him to a five-year, $75 million contract in spring 2012 before Molina, who's third on the team with 49 RBI, blossomed as a hitter.
Improved conditioning the last few offseasons have helped him stay on the field. Backup Tony Cruz has been nailed to the bench, finally reaching double-digit starts earlier this month when Molina missed a handful of games with right knee irritation.
If Cubs manager Dale Sveum were an MVP voter, he'd pick Molina, too.
"I've had a lot of bad walk-off losses in this park over the years," Sveum said last month. "And Molina's right in the middle of every one, it seems,"
The 36-year-old Beltran has been an All-Star both of his seasons with the Cardinals, helping the team's fans move on seamlessly after former franchise icon Albert Pujols signed with the Angels. He's batting .309, leads the team with 19 homers and has legs frisky enough to steal home earlier this month.
Craig leads the majors with a gaudy .487 average with runners in scoring position and is among the league leaders with 74 RBI. Fellow first-time All-Star Matt Carpenter has a .405 on-base percentage batting leadoff and has proven to be a fast learner at second base, too, after learning the position this spring.
There's potential for more. Matt Holliday and David Freese have yet to get rolling, combining for 68 RBI.