The Inside Pitch with Ray Mileur

 As the Cardinals continue to await the return of their four injured regulars, they are in the midst of their toughest scheduling stretch of the season. Eastern Division contenders Florida and Atlanta arrive in St. Louis this week for a seven-game Cardinals home stand, and the Cardinals won't be close to full strength. After that stand, the Cardinals have to go to Milwaukee and Chicago for a week and, later in August, embark on a two-week trip.
   Due to the vagaries of scheduling in a 16-team league, the Cardinals and Marlins will be meeting for the first time this season after seeing each other nearly every day in spring training at Jupiter, Fla. Despite the swirl of trade rumors and discussion of whether manager Jack McKeon should be fired, the Marlins gradually are getting themselves together to make a run at either the wild card or the division lead.
   Cardinals manager Tony La Russa never has had much regular-season success against Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, although La Russa has won two of three playoff series from Cox.
   La Russa has had to experiment with various lineup combinations lately, but most of them have had rookie LF John Rodriguez as a prominent figure. Rodriguez, set back slightly by a sprained ankle, hit safely in his first 10 starts before being held hitless in two official at-bats on Sunday.
   1B Albert Pujols, with 12 hits in his last six games, is heating up again and likely will make a run at the Triple Crown. An unnoticed statistic about Pujols is that he is at the top of the runs scored list, too, despite batting third and not having 3B Scott Rolen behind him to help drive him in.
   Every starting pitcher except LHP Mark Mulder will face the Marlins in a four-game set. Mulder, 11-1 at night, then will face the Braves on Friday night in St. Louis.

   --1B Albert Pujols popped his 28th homer Friday and had a run-scoring single but failed to advance five runners in his other three at-bats.
   --RHP Cal Eldred has not allowed a run in 14 of his 16 outings through Sunday. He earned the victory Sunday against the Dodgers with two innings of shutout relief.
   --Light-hitting C Mike Mahoney, who had had just two hits in his first 22 at-bats, had his second consecutive two-hit game Friday.
   --3B Abraham Nunez, 1B Albert Pujols and LF John Rodriguez had been good more often than not as the Cardinals stumbled through July at a .242 average, next worst to Washington in the entire league.
   And all three were good again Thursday.
   Nunez, playing solid defense in place of injured Scott Rolen and contributing far more offensively than Rolen was able to, had three singles and a walk. Pujols, creeping up on Chicago's Derrek Lee for the batting lead, had three hits, including a triple, and knocked in two runs.
   And rookie Rodriguez, who had 17 homers in 34 games at Triple-A Memphis, popped his third since coming up 11 days ago and also doubled.
   --The Cardinals are 17-4 in RHP Chris Carpenter's 21 starts. His 15 wins match his total for last season, when he missed the last two weeks and the postseason because of a nerve problem in his biceps.
   Until Thursday, when Carpenter gave up three runs in the second inning, he had allowed only one run in the first inning of his 20 starts and just two runs in the second.
   --RHP Jason Marquis has just one win in his last seven starts and is still shy of double-figure victories, but his effort Wednesday should have been a winning one.
   Even though the San Diego Padres were able to elevate some of Marquis' sinkers -- he had just eight groundball outs -- Marquis limited San Diego to only four hits for eight innings. Then, Marquis, who never had gone past eight innings in his career, went into the ninth and allowed a one-out double to LF Ryan Klesko, who hustled into second ahead of CF Jim Edmonds' off-balance throw. An intentional walk to 3B Joe Randa, a .370 hitter for his career against the Cardinals, preceded a game-winning single by Padres C Robert Fick.
   On a cool night, Marquis threw 132 pitches, believed to be a career high, as he dropped to 9-8 in the 2-1 loss.
   --RF Larry Walker may not play for several weeks as he tries to heal from a herniated disk in his neck. Walker has taken a third cortisone shot for the ailment but, instead of coming back to play a couple of days later as he did following the first two shots, he will lay out this time and try to strengthen the area.
   Walker said he could handle only one more shot. "The only question right now is how can we avoid sticking needles in places we shouldn't?" he said.
   --1B Albert Pujols has become one of the most effective base stealers in the league. He had 11 steals in 11 tries through Sunday.
   BY THE NUMBERS: 9 1/2 -- When the Cardinals lost at San Diego on Wednesday, their lead in the NL Central shrank into single digits at 9 1/2 games for the first time since July 2.
   QUOTE TO NOTE: "He hangs in there on the double play as well as anybody. Guys can be right on top of him, and he's not going to give." -- Manager Tony La Russa on 2B Mark Grudzielanek, whom La Russa is trumpeting for the Gold Glove.

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