Cardinals stake their claim as the best team in baseball

WASHINGTON -- If you are what your record says you are, then the St. Louis Cardinals are the best team in baseball.

With a convincing 5-1 win over the Washington Nationals and ace Max Scherzer on Wednesday night, St. Louis improved to 20-10. The victory, combined with the Rays' doubleheader loss to Kansas City, gave the Cards the best record in the majors. It was the first time this season they could make that claim, but it probably won't be the last.

Heading into this weekend's showdown with the rival Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, the Cardinals are on a roll and beginning to look like the class of a top-heavy National League Central. Since getting off to a sluggish 3-5 start, St. Louis has won 17 of its past 22 (including 10 of its past 11) to open up a three-game lead over the Cubs. It's a margin that hardly qualifies as breathing room. Not this early. And not in a division that features the defending NL champion Brewers. Still, it bodes well for a proud franchise that came into the season with heightened hopes.

Following the winter acquisition of first baseman and perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, the Cardinals -- who haven't made the playoffs since 2015 -- were projected to give Chicago and Milwaukee a run for their money. On Opening Day, FanGraphs gave St. Louis a 25 percent chance of winning the division and a 48 percent chance of making the playoffs. A little more than a month later, the Cards are favored to win the Central (41 percent) and have a 65 percent chance of making the postseason, second best in the NL behind the Dodgers.

Speaking of the Dodgers, it was Los Angeles, led by preliminary MVP favorite Cody Bellinger, that spent much of April basking in baseball's early-season buzz. Over in the American League, the surprising Rays have been grabbing all the headlines. Meanwhile, as the calendar turns to May, St. Louis has quietly crept past those two teams. Not to mention the other 27.

Although May Day is made for mirages, there's plenty of reason to believe the Cardinals can stay perched at or near the top of the MLB standings. For starters, they boast a plus-36 run differential that backs up their glossy win-loss record and is second best in the NL. And it's not as if that plus-36 has come easy: Of the first 30 games that St. Louis played, 25 of them came against clubs that had a winning record at the end of April. In fact, according to ESPN's Relative Power Index, the Redbirds had the second-hardest schedule in baseball entering the month of May. In other words, they've earned what they've achieved so far.

They've earned it thanks to a potent lineup that has helped mask a mediocre start by the rotation. Through the end of April, the Cardinals' offense was averaging 5.4 runs, second in the NL behind Chicago. Goldschmidt and left fielder Marcell Ozuna had combined for 19 home runs. Shortstop Paul DeJong had a 1.010 OPS that ranked fifth in the NL, and Kolten Wong -- who was leading all second baseman in WAR -- had a .398 on-base percentage. The bullpen was getting it done too, posting a 1.12 WHIP that ranked second in the majors. That's not to say that St. Louis doesn't have issues.

If you're a fan of the Cubs or Brewers, perhaps the scariest part of the Cardinals' early success is that it has come despite limited production from the usual suspects. Entering May, third baseman Matt Carpenter -- who was a big part of the MVP conversation last year -- was hitting .202 and had an OPS-plus of 85 (MLB average is 100). Harrison Bader, the dynamic young center fielder who sparked the team last season and finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year balloting, struggled out of the gate before hitting the injured list because of a strained hamstring. Starting pitchers Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty, who led the St. Louis rotation in WAR last season, had a combined 4.71 ERA and had gave up 15 home runs in 65 innings.

"There's a lot of guys in here that are happy to see April end so we can get a fresh start," said MikoIas, who on Wednesday recorded just his second quality start in seven outings to best Scherzer. "I know I was."

If you didn't know any better, you'd think that the Cards' ace, who inked a four-year, $68 million contract extension in February, was talking about a cellar-dwelling team that went 10-20. Instead, he's referencing a first-place squad that went 20-10. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it's just the 11th time in franchise history that St. Louis has won 20 of its first 30 games. The last time it happened, in 2015, the Cards wound up winning 100 games and a division crown. Not that anyone in the St. Louis clubhouse is stocking up on champagne just yet.

"It's nice to have a good record," manager Mike Shildt said. "But we're always looking to evolve in how we play the game, and we need to continue to improve. We take every day as it comes and put our energy and focus on that particular day."

This weekend, that means focusing on the Cubs. Even though it's only the beginning of May, a full four months before the time of year when big leaguers actually admit to scoreboard watching, it's an important series for both teams.

"We're obviously looking to make a lot of noise when we go in there," said Mikolas, whose Cardinals are just 11-18 at Wrigley Field over the past three years and have already lost five of seven at Milwaukee this season. "I think it'll be a lot of fun. We've got guys that are just scratching the surface of what they're really capable of. Once we start hitting on all cylinders, I think we're going to play some really special baseball."

According to their record, the Cardinals are already doing that.