Over the weekend, I chatted with USA Today’s Bob Nightengale about the Cardinals and their status mid-way through the season. Here’s what he had to say:

Steve Hirsch: With Lance Berkman returning to the club this weekend, what should Mike Matheny do with Allen Craig?

Bob Nightengale: I think Allen Craig needs to be in the lineup every day whether it’s first base or the outfield. He is just too valuable of  a bat. I think for now, [Matheny] is going to sprinkle Berkman in and out where he can get healthy slowly. I don’t think he’ll be used as an every day player, probably in there just a few times a week.

SH: Are the Pittsburgh Pirates for real and should the Cards be worried about them?

BN: I think the Pirates are for real. I don’t see them going away so quickly. I think they’ll be aggressive at the trade deadline to try and get some help, and I think this is clearly going to be a great race down the stretch between the Reds, Pirates, and Cardinals.

SH: Do you think the Cards have what it takes to win the division?

BN: I certainly see them getting back into the postseason, whether it’s as a division champion or wildcard. They showed the potential they have in April and with Berkman coming back and the pitching still continuing to be strong, even without [Chris] Carpenter, I think they have as good a chance as anybody to win the division.

SH: Come the end of September, who do you see at the top of this division?

BN: I still think its a toss-up between Cincinnati and St. Louis. I think it will come down to whoever makes the best trade at the deadline. Right now, I give a slight edge to the Cardinals. I think Cincinnati is more willing to go for it, I think they’re more apt to give some more prized prospects to try and win this thing.

SH: What’s your assessment on Mike Matheny half-way through the season?

BN: He’s a very strong manager…the players have warmed up to him and they respect him despite the inexperience. they appreciate the fact that he’s a former player and that he played for the Cardinals, so I think it’s been a great move having him as manager.