ST. LOUIS -- The last long road trip of the season may end up being the most important for the Cardinals, as Friday marks the beginning of a stretch of 11 games in 10 days.

Those 11 games include eight against divisional opponents Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, both of which haven't allowed the Cardinals much separation in the National League Central race. Entering Thursday's game, the Pirates trailed St. Louis by just two games with the second best record in baseball, not that the Cardinals are focused on the standings, at least publicly.

"We try to just keep a common message around here, and one of the clear common messages is, let's just deal with today," manager Mike Matheny said. "We'll jump on a plane, it will take us to the right place, and we'll end up at the right hotel and we're going to start studying the right team. Let's play them then. I just think if we get our heads too far into what's in front of us, you lose some of your focus on here and now. And we've got plenty of here and now."

The Cardinals have championed a cliched, one-game-at-a-time attitude toward this season, but however tired that mantra may sound, Matheny believes it's one of the things that has made the Cardinals successful this season.

"I'm not saying I'm oblivious to what our schedule looks like," Matheny said. "I understand that. So much of this game is a mental war, where you can feel your mind slipping toward anything, you name it. These guys are real people, too. So they've got a life that's creeping into their mind in the middle of a game. It's just, 'How can I redirect my attention and my mind?' It's mental conditioning, and some guys do it better than others, but it's a constant fight."

Rzepczynski returns to St. Louis; Martinez optioned

STL@MIL: Martinez pitches a scoreless frame in debut

ST. LOUIS -- After his longest stint at Triple-A, Marc Rzepczynski has returned to St. Louis.

The Cardinals on Thursday optioned top-rated pitching prospect Carlos Martinez back to Triple-A Memphis, recalling Rzepczynski in his place.

Rzepczynski will give the Cardinals' bullpen three southpaws. The 27-year-old began the season in the Majors and appeared in nine games, allowing seven runs over eight innings, before his demotion on April 29. He posted a 3.07 ERA in 32 relief appearances, spanning 44 innings, with Memphis.

The fifth-year veteran, acquired from Toronto near the 2011 Trade Deadline, appeared in 70 games for the Cardinals last season and was an integral member of the bullpen in 2011, when St. Louis won the World Series. Rzepczynski said his focus in the Minors was returning to his 2011 form.

"I went down there every day and just tried to be the best that I could be," he said. ""I just had to take a step back and start over, and just try to get back to where I can be, and I know I can."

With the departure of Mitchell Boggs via trade to the Rockies and his extended stay in Memphis, Rzepczynski admitted his mind did wander regarding his long-term future with the Cardinals, especially with Wednesday's Trade Deadline approaching.

"Down there, a little bit, I didn't know what was going to happen," he said. "With the guys throwing up here, I didn't know if I was going to be here in September, now, ever again. You just never know with that kind of situation.

"Once you've been traded once, anything is bound to happen. I'm just happy to be here now, help the team win. If something happens, something happens, but right now I'm just happy to be back."

Martinez, the Cardinals' Minor League Pitcher of the Month in June, pitched just 3 1/3 innings after being added to the big league roster on July 11. He struck out two and allowed three runs. He had posted a 1.98 ERA in eight starts with Memphis prior to his callup.

"It just worked out to the point where Carlos really wasn't getting the amount of innings he needed," manager Mike Matheny said. "We needed to go and make sure that he's getting built up and able to improve. He's still a very young pitcher. It was nice to get him in [Wednesday] night to have a good feeling before he went off."

Kozma rewarding Matheny's faith, patience

PHI@STL: Kozma piles onto the lead with an RBI single

ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny wasn't known for his prowess at the plate. The four-time Gold Glove catcher had a career .239 average, with his best season coming in at .261.

Then-St. Louis manager Tony La Russa told Matheny he could focus on catching and handling the pitching staff and the offense will take care of itself, and Matheny appreciated it.

"That was a potent team, and they just needed me to do the little things right," Matheny said. "Sure enough, having that freedom to do my job also just freed me up to have a little more offense than I had before."

So, now, when one of his players, shortstop Pete Kozma, was struggling offensively, Matheny passed along the same message.

"You look at our club, you look at our lineup. We've got enough to produce runs. We've got to save some," Matheny said. "To me, the way Pete's playing defense, he's saving us runs. So there's huge value to that that just doesn't show up in the linescores."

Kozma ran into an 0-for-27 slump, spanning 10 games from June 26 to July 13, and while he was replaced in the lineup by Daniel Descalso for a few games, Matheny backed the young shortstop. And before long, Kozma snapped the streak with a three-hit game in Chicago on July 14 and has at least one hit in four of his five games since.

"Sometimes it goes good, sometimes it goes bad," Kozma said. "You're going to get frustrated. Everybody gets frustrated. I mean, it just happens. You've just got to keep playing."

Kozma said he stuck with his approach throughout the slump and was confident things would eventually turn around in the long run. And it helped that the Cardinals weren't starved for offensive production, with three players -- Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter -- among the top five in National League batting average.

"Those guys are going to always be hitting the ball," Kozma said. "It always helps when I ask them for help and you know they're right there."

After first MLB hit, Peterson hoping to stick around

PHI@STL: Peterson's first career hit drives in a run

ST. LOUIS -- Brock Peterson plans to send the ball from his first big league hit home with Mom and Dad -- if he ever finds it.

The career Minor Leaguer recorded his first Major League hit in the eighth inning of Wednesday's 11-3 win over the Phillies, but has yet to receive the ball.

"I'm sure someone's got it and they're holding it for ransom," Peterson said after the game.

"I'll just wait it out," he added Thursday afternoon, the ball still unaccounted for.

With or without the physical proof of his first hit, Peterson said he is starting to feel like a Major League player after spending 10 years in the Minors.

"There's a lot of little work to do and a lot of accomplishments personally and with the team that are still in front of us," he said, "but it definitely feels a lot better to have a [batting] average."

Now that he finally broke through to the Majors, Peterson, who nearly walked away from the game this offseason to go to college, has a rejuvenated motivation.

"Being in the Minors, watching all the other guys get their opportunity, it starts to wear on you," Peterson said. "And they always come back excited and with a bunch of stories. Now I'm getting a taste, it definitely fuels the fire a little bit."

With bench player Ty Wigginton recently released, Peterson has an opportunity to stick with the team even when Matt Holliday returns this weekend from the 15-day disabled list, particularly because the Cardinals are unlikely to keep a third catcher, Rob Johnson, on the active roster for long.

Regardless of what happens when Holliday returns, Peterson is hopeful his professional baseball career is far from over.

"My outlook now is I'll play as long as they let me wear a jersey," Peterson said. "Hopefully that is the start of a lot more doors to open up to me. I love being here as a Cardinal and hope to be here for a long time."

Worth noting

• Matheny confirmed Thursday afternoon that the Cardinals will start Joe Kelly on Saturday in Atlanta.

• With a doubleheader against Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Matheny said both Michael Wacha and Tyler Lyons are candidates to make a spot start in one of the two games. The Cardinals will take advantage of the 26th-man rule, which will allow them to add an extra pitcher to the roster for that day.

• Holliday is expected to come off the disabled list Saturday, and Matheny said the outfielder will travel with the team to Atlanta. Holliday and his wife, Leslee, welcomed their fourth child and third son Wednesday night.