With a new season underway, the St. Louis Cardinals are back on the field working their way toward another solid year of baseball.
The season's first series is now in the rear view mirror and it's time to start looking forward. As they move into this weekend's series, there are several keys to coming out on top over.
While the Cardinals offense has struggled early, there's little reason for concern. They still have the talent, they just need to find their groove.
The Cardinals head to Pittsburgh for three games against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who return home with a 2-1 record after beginning their season against the Chicago Cubs.
The Pirates may not be as strong as they were in 2013, but they're no pushover and the Cardinals need to take these early division games very serious. In September, it could be these early games that decide the division.
Following are a handful of key stpes that need to happen for the Cardinals to take their first weekend series of the season.
Shut down McCutchen
Andrew McCutchen was a force to be reckoned with in 2013, winning the National League MVP award. He was an All-Star and also won the Silver Slugger Award as the best offensive player at his position.
He may be getting off to a slow start in 2014, but don't let him fool you—he's still Andrew McCutchen and he will dominate again.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, he didn't hit them very well in 2014 (.249/.329/.377, 2 HR. 8 RBI. 17 K, 5 XBH.) The key for the Cardinals will be to keep him shut down for three more days.
Carpenter needs to start hitting
One key to getting the Cardinals bats hot is to get Matt Carpenter hitting again.
In 2013, Carpenter hit .388/.458/.543 with RISP. His numbers with men on base were even better (.392/.468/.558).
While baseball is very much a team game, this team simply plays better when Carpenter is hitting the ball.
Any number of things could be bothering him—the pressure of a new contract, living up to last year's expectations or simply trying too hard too soon. He never quite got his bearings in spring training, so he's due to turn it on soon.
Why not in Pittsburgh?
Defense needs to gel better
Through the first two games of the season, the Cardinals defense seemed a bit awkward.
Despite marked improvements in the middle infield and at centerfield, the Cardinals seem to be struggling defensively. Most likely it's just a fluke, but it does sometimes take a little while for players to mesh with one another defensively.
With that said, defensive play like we've seen in the past few days may not cut it in Pittsburgh. There's usually a little room for error, but these teams match up well.
To get off to a good start in the NL Central Division, the Cardinals need to win this series.
There's no need to be digging out of a hole in April if they don't have to be.
Starting pitching has to continue to dominate
The Cardinals starting pitching has looked good so far in 2014 and it made the difference in 2013. To make the run the Cardinals should make this season, they're going to need the rotation to step in a big way once again.
The starting rotation pitched well in Cincinnati, but in Pittsburgh we will get our first look at the bottom half of the rotation.
Assuming Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly, Jr. pitch up to their ability, the Cardinals have a good shot at getting out of Pittsburgh with a couple of wins under their belt.
If Miller and Kelly don't look so hot, well…
Corey Noles is a Cardinals Writer and Columnist for The Daily Statesman. He is also a regular contributor to KSDK.com and Bleacher Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @coreynoles.