Cards have favorable remaining schedule

Just how far can Gary Bennett carry a team?

Over the weekend, the journeyman catcher made like Mike Piazza in the old days. He hit a walk-off grand slam on Sunday and a homer and walk-off single on Saturday to help the St. Louis Cardinals sweep the Chicago Cubs and turn a percentage-points lead over the Cincinnati Reds into a respectable three-game margin in the National League Central. The Cardinals picked up another half game Monday as the Reds dropped their fourth straight game.

But it remains to be seen whether Bennett's more highly credentialed teammates can take it from there, regaining the superiority that left them more than three months ago.

A 31-16 start had quieted the talk about ownership's decision not to increase the payroll moving into the new Busch Stadium, as this looked like a typical Tony La Russa team -- certainly one of the two best in the weak NL and seemingly headed to the championship series for the fourth time in five years. It settled down in the next few weeks, with the Cards going 11-10 to build a lead of 5½ games in the division on June 18.

That's when the handling of the Clydesdale's wagon got a little squirrelly.

Since June 18, the Cardinals have gone 27-34, matching Houston for the fourth-best record in the NL Central and Houston and Colorado for the 12th-best record in the NL overall. Put another way, only Pittsburgh and Washington have been worse since that cut-off day in June.

Luckily for the Cardinals, no one has taken advantage of their summer stumble. The Central has gone a collective 164-207 since June 18, with no one -- including the often-praised Reds -- over .500. Credit the horror of interleague play, in which the Central combined for a 31-62 record.

It was the games against the American League that exposed the Cardinals' vulnerability. They were 5-10, allowed seven runs per game and experienced the first of their two eight-game losing streaks while playing AL teams, including an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals.

The finger-pointing has broken out, with fans calling ownership greedy for not giving general manager Walt Jocketty a bigger budget before the July 31 deadline and during the offseason, when the Cardinals most significantly added Juan Encarnacion, Sidney Ponson, Aaron Miles and Larry Bigbie. Now management is putting the blame on the players.

Here's a sample of the dialogue.

Said Jocketty: "Our problem is we've got a couple of guys who are underachieving that need to do better. And if they would do better, we would certainly be in a better situation."

Said managing owner Bill DeWitt Jr.: "Throwing money at the team is not the best approach to winning. Everybody wants there to be a linear relationship between payroll and winning. The facts don't support that."

More DeWitt from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "I just think for whatever reasons some people have said or written or talked on the radio that we opened the new ballpark to a lower payroll than last year. That's just not factual. Last year we had a payroll right around $90 million. This year we're tracking at $95 million, and right now we're in excess of $96 million. We do what we think is necessary to win. … It would be one thing if we were in the $60 million or $70 million range given the kind of support we have here. We're in the upper echelon of Major League Baseball. We have a high payroll. We're fortunate to be able to do it."

Still, Mr. DeWitt, it doesn't look good when you lose a bidding war to the mighty Royals, as the Cardinals did in their failed attempt to retain second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, who had hit .294 a year ago. Nor did it look good when Jocketty did little in the offseason to fill the glaring holes at second base and on either side of 36-year-old center fielder Jim Edmonds.

Miles, Encarnacion and Bigbie were the primary imports. The Cardinals were counting on their starting pitching to hide the thinness of the lineup and the inexperience of a rebuilt bullpen, which lost Julian Tavarez, Ray King, Al Reyes and Cal Eldred to free agency, trades, injury or retirement. That's the biggest thing that hasn't happened.

With shoulder issues creating a nightmare situation for Mark Mulder, the starting pitchers behind Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter have gone 39-38 with a 5.44 earned run average.

Carpenter (12-6), Jason Marquis (13-12) and Jeff Suppan (10-7) enter the last month as double-figure winners, but Marquis and Suppan have ERAs of 5.77 and 4.77, respectively. Marquis' totals admittedly are deceiving as he was done irreparable damage when La Russa left him to give up 13 earned runs to the White Sox and 12 to the Braves.

Injuries to the lineup haven't helped, either. Encarnacion is the only Cardinal with a chance to play 150 games. Reigning MVP Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Edmonds have all missed time, contributing to St. Louis' ranking only seventh in the NL in scoring (ninth since the All-Star break).

This has created culture shock at the new Busch, where St. Louis' hitters haven't become as comfortable as at the old place. They ranked third in the NL in runs in 2005, first in 2004 and hadn't ranked lower than fourth since 1999.

It's easy to see how the Cards have fallen into the middle of the pack, however. With Pujols and Rolen, they rank first and second, respectively, in OPS at first base and third base. But center field (Edmonds) is the only other position where they are even in the top 10 among NL teams. Their second basemen and catchers rank 15th at their positions.

Shortstop David Eckstein, possibly out for the season with a torn muscle in his side, joins Edmonds and catcher Yadier Molina among the Cardinals currently sidelined with injuries.

While Jocketty wasn't able to land a Bobby Abreu or Greg Maddux, he has continued to provide reinforcements. Among those contributing are Jeff Weaver, Ronnie Belliard, Preston Wilson and Jose Vizcaino.

The good news for the Cardinals is that they have enough elite players in Carpenter, Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds (still out with post-concussion syndrome) that there's almost no way they can fail to make it into the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.

It's true that they have a cushion of only four games keeping them from falling into a tie for the wild-card spot (assuming Cincinnati were to come back and win the Central, which seems unlikely) but their remaining schedule is highly favorable.

Depending on how the Padres play the rest of the way, it's possible the Cardinals will not face another team with a winning record until the playoffs. That's how bad the NL is in 2006.

Even if the Padres are above .500 when they play St. Louis in late September, the Cards could play 29 consecutive games against teams with losing records, including the just-completed sweep of the Cubs. Their next 26 games are against Florida (three), Pittsburgh (three), Washington (three), Arizona (four), Houston (seven), San Francisco (three) and Milwaukee (three).

This might be a year when there are no sure things in the NL. But given their pedigree, their manager and the firepower in the middle of the order, the Cardinals are very close to a sure thing to reach the playoffs.

If they can win a round or two in October, the flopping around of the last three months won't seem terribly important.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through amazon.com or direct order from Triumph Publishing (800-222-4657).