The Inside Pitch with Ray Mileur

For much of the season, it has been presumed that the Cardinals would wind up with the best record in the National League and have the home-field advantage through the National League portion of the postseason. But the three games the Cardinals will play against the Atlanta Braves this weekend have become much more significant lately, relative to that advantage. 

Atlanta has climbed close enough to the Cardinals that a Braves sweep or even a series victory would keep them very much alive for the top record in the league. 

After a series of intriguing pitching matchups for four games with Florida, the Atlanta series provides a couple of more. On Friday, Cardinals LHP Mark Mulder will draw Atlanta RHP John Smoltz and on Saturday, RHP Jason Marquis, a former Braves pitcher, will oppose new Braves RHP Tim Hudson

On Sunday, RHP Chris Carpenter, the majors' top winner at 16-4, will oppose surprise RHP Jorge Sosa (7-1) of the Braves. 

Atlanta has shown an ability to beat the Cardinals in the regular season over the concurrent managerial careers of St. Louis' Tony La Russa and Atlanta's Bobby Cox although La Russa has won two of three postseason series from Atlanta. 

This series will leave the Cardinals with just 10 games remaining against the National League East -- three each with Washington and Florida and four with New York. The East has been pesky for the Cardinals, who are just 9-9 against that division.


  --RHP Chris Carpenter is on target to become the Cardinals' first Cy Young Award winner since Bob Gibson in 1970. 

Carpenter knocked off his eighth straight victory and became the major leagues' first 16-game winner in a 3-1 win over Florida Tuesday night. 

After Florida 2B Luis Castillo singled with two out in the third inning, Carpenter (16-4) retired 19 of the last 21 hitters he faced, with only one Marlin hitting safely -- 1B Jeff Conine singled in the ninth -- and only two others hitting a ball to the outfield. 

There were four hit batsmen in the game, three of them Cardinals. After LF John Rodriguez was hit in the hand in the eighth inning, manager Tony La Russa challenged several Marlins, including catcher Paul Lo Duca, about having LHP Ron Villone bring the ball down.

Earlier in the inning, Villone had thrown high and tight to CF Jim Edmonds although the ball ticked off Edmonds' bat for a strike.

--The 132 pitches RHP Jason Marquis threw in his last start, a 2-1 loss in the bottom of the ninth at San Diego, might have played into his effort Monday night. Marquis was touched for six runs and nine hits over six innings in a 6-5 loss to Florida.

Marquis (9-9) has won just once in his last nine starts and has lost six times in that span. He was the second pitcher on the staff to get to eight victories -- Marquis reached that level on June 10 -- but he is the only pitcher not to have at least 10 wins now.

But manager Tony La Russa said he thought Marquis was all right Monday.    "He didn't get away with anything," said La Russa. "Overall, he threw a lot of good pitches."

1B Albert Pujols, riding another hot streak, extended his hitting streak to seven games (13 for 29) with a long first-inning homer. But a baserunning mistake by RF So Taguchi in the eighth inning cost Pujols a shot at batting in the ninth. 

As PH John Mabry's sacrifice fly -- which was the second out -- scored 2B Mark Grudzielanek with the fifth run, Taguchi, running off first, was tagged out in a rundown between first and second after Marlins 3B Mike Lowell had cut off the ball and thrown to second. That ended the inning, and the Cardinals went down 1-2-3 in the ninth with Pujols standing in the on-deck circle.

"(Taguchi) thought it was an overthrow," said La Russa.

--As the Cardinals entered the last few days of July, they had startlingly disparate day-game and night-game records.

At one point, they were just 18-18 in the daytime and 45-19 at night. But, in a space of four games, they won three straight day games to cap the month with a 4-2 trip to San Diego and Los Angeles.

The constant in each of the three wins was a multi-run homer by center fielder Jim Edmonds, who hit a three-run blast to help beat San Diego on Thursday (July 28) and then on successive days, Saturday and Sunday, cracked two-run homers to win games at Los Angeles.

Edmonds' third homer in the streak came off Dodgers left-hander Wilson Alvarez in the 11th inning on Sunday. Edmonds thought he had a day off but entered the game late to drive in one run with a pinch single and two more with his 20th homer of the season and 201st as a Cardinal. Edmonds knocked in a total of 10 runs in the three games.

The biggest reason for the day-night disparity came on the mound. At night, the team's ERA was 2.89 and by day, it was 4.40, with only Matt Morris among the five-man starting corps below his overall ERA with a 3.18 daytime ERA.

Mark Mulder was 11-1 at night with a 2.21 ERA, and Jeff Suppan was 8-4, 3.45 under the lights. By day, that pair is 1-3, 6.92 and 2-3, 6.61, respectively, and Mulder's day ERA even includes his brilliant 1-0, 10-inning victory over Houston in April.

"It's significant enough to look at," pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "But to give you a reason, I don't know.

"I know Mulder has not been good in the daytime. But he said he's doing absolutely nothing different. He cannot put his finger on anything. He's preparing exactly the same. He said he's never been this way before."

Mulder pitched better on Sunday in Los Angeles but still walked five in just 5 2/3 innings.

Offensively, only a couple of hitters are noticeably better in the daytime, and they're both on the disabled list. Reggie Sanders is hitting .314 in the daylight and .268 at night, and Scott Rolen is .288 in the daytime and .203 at night.

Before the three-game day streak, manager Tony La Russa admitted he had talked about it with the players and suggested some changes in their preparations.

"We need to play better in the daytime," said La Russa. "We go about (every game) the same way. It's just one of those freak numbers that sometimes you try to explain it and you change it so you start doing better.
"It's there, and you've got to acknowledge it. But sometimes it drives you nuts trying to figure out what's going on."

--Right fielder Larry Walker joined catcher Yadier Molina, third baseman Scott Rolen and left fielder Reggie Sanders on the disabled list with a recurrent of discomfort in his neck, caused by a herniated disc. Walker took his third cortisone shot for the ailment but instead of coming back to play a couple of days later, as he had done before, he will sit out two weeks and probably more.

"We're going to give him some significant time instead of a few days ... give him a few weeks," trainer Barry Weinberg said.

Walker said, "If this is going to be my last year, I'm going to do this right now. I'm not thinking about the long term.

"Right now, I'm trying to make myself available to help the organization win. You hear a lot of bad stories about a herniated disc. I've heard some good ones, too."

--Before the July 31 trade deadline, general manager Walt Jocketty was in contact with several teams, including Cincinnati, which has a glut of outfielders. But he was told by Reds general manager Dan O'Brien that Cincinnati wasn't going to do anything and that the Reds organization would be "evaluating" the situation.

"I've got very little going, if anything," Jocketty said. "I'm looking for a hitter primarily, but I haven't had much luck mainly because there's not much available."

--SS David Eckstein, who fouled pitches off his knee and his hip in the first inning Saturday, not only doubled off Los Angeles RHP Derek Lowe in that inning, he cracked his third homer of the season off RHP Giovanni Carrarra in the sixth. The three-run blow was Eckstein's first homer since May 25.

--RHP Jeff Suppan became the Cardinals' fourth 10-game winner on Saturday, joining RHP Chris Carpenter, LHP Mark Mulder and RHP Matt Morris.

--2B Mark Grudzielanek, whom manager Tony La Russa rates as the tops in the league defensively, turned two tough double plays on Sunday besides hitting a three-run homer and doubling twice in the game.

BY THE NUMBERS: 9 1/2 -- When the Cardinals lost at San Diego on Thursday, their lead in the NL Central shrank into single digits at 9 games for the first time since July 2.

POSTER BOYS: Mark Grudzielanek and Albert Pujols are off to hot starts post All-Star break, as Mark ranks fourth among N.L. players with at least 75 plate appearances with a .355 batting average. Pujols ranks sixth with a .352 batting average. Grudzielanek has hit in seven straight games (.414, 12-29) and with a hit tonight would equal his season high hit streak.

ABE'S ABLE:  Going into Thursday's game Abraham Nunez is batting .367 (22-60) since the break, but falls just short of the minimum plate appearances in the chart at right as he has 71...Nunez has hit in 13 of his 17 games since the break, including13 of his 15 starts.

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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