John Minchillo
July 16, 2015

ST. LOUIS (AP) Bruised and battle-tested, the St. Louis Cardinals watched their division lead dwindle to 2 1/2 games entering the All-Star break.

They still have the best record and stingiest staff in the major leagues - and hopes of some reinforcements.

The Cardinals anticipate getting Matt Holliday back from the 15-day disabled list, too, just in time for their return series against the New York Mets at home beginning Friday.

''I think guys don't buy into the fact that we can't do something,'' said manager Mike Matheny, who has presided over a strong body of work by an ensemble featuring multiple rookies and other temporary fixes. ''There's going to be times during the season you're going to lose significant pieces.''

The Cardinals are 56-33 despite injuries to ace Adam Wainwright, Matt Adams, Jon Jay, Jordan Walden, Marco Gonzales and Holliday, out since early June with a quadriceps injury.

Through great times, when the NL Central lead was nine games, and lean days, Matheny has been steadfast in ignoring the won-loss record and demanding daily commitment.

''It comes down to `What am I going to do right now? Am I going to be able to do my part, do my piece?''' he said. ''It doesn't matter who is here or not here.''

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Things to watch for the rest of the way with the Cardinals:

PITCHING PROWESS

The stingiest pitching staff in the majors is by far the biggest reason the Cardinals, who have been to the NL Championship Series or better a franchise-best four straight seasons, have a good shot to keep that run going. They have a 2.71 ERA, best at the break in the majors since the 1981 Astros posted a 2.81 ERA, according to STATS. They landed three pitchers on the All-Star team: 10-game winners Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, plus closer Trevor Rosenthal.

Wacha, Lance Lynn, Martinez, John Lackey and Jaime Garcia have a collective 2.84 ERA, the best pre-break showing by the franchise since 1968 when Bob Gibson set a major-league record with a 1.12 ERA.

SPOTTY OFFENSE

Holliday's return to the No. 3 slot could be a key for a lineup that's underachieved much of the time scoring three or fewer runs nearly half of the time. He's a proven run-producer, one of three active players with 1,000 career RBIs and a .300 batting average.

All-Stars Jhonny Peralta and Yadier Molina have been two-way standouts at shortstop and catcher, but the Cardinals could use more production from Matt Carpenter, Jason Heyward and the streaky Mark Reynolds. Carpenter is back at leadoff after struggling batting second, which figures to help, and Heyward has picked it up after a slow start.

Matheny's strategy seems to be keeping the pressure off the bats.

''Our pitching sets the tone,'' he said. Guys have been doing a nice job of keeping us in games all the way through, the bullpen has done a nice job of finishing it up. Finding a way to win has almost been like a theme for our club.''

FILL THE BLANKS

Randal Grichuk, once billed as an add-on in the swap of David Freese to the Angels for Peter Bourjos, has thrived with regular duty in left field in Holliday's absence with seven homers and 26 RBIs in 191 at-bats. The ball jumps off his bat. Reynolds and a handful of rookies have made Adams' likely season-ending quad injury in May less of a blow. Kevin Siegrist and Miguel Socolovich have stepped up in place of Walden in the set-up role.

COMEBACK KIDS

Garcia's contribution is a luxury coming off career-threatening thoracic outlet surgery for nerve issues that cost him much of the previous two seasons. In seven starts, he's 3-3 with a 1.69 ERA, and he could return from a groin injury this weekend. Wacha shows no signs of the stress reaction to his pitching shoulder that cost him most of the second half of last season.

HOME PROWESS

The success story begins at Busch Stadium, where they're 31-11 for a major league-best .738 winning percentage, spurred by capacity crowds most games and a 2.31 staff ERA. Before the break, they won 11 of 14 home series.

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AP Sports Writer Joe Kay in Cincinnati contributed to this report.

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