BY R.B. FALLSTROM

The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS - The pitching staff that was overlooked has helped put the St. Louis Cardinals on top in the National League.

The Cardinals are 20 games above .500 and have a six-game lead in the Central Division entering a weekend series with the Chicago Cubs, one of the two revamped teams they were supposed to be chasing in the NL Central.

So far the Cardinals have made the leap from a third-place finish last year without any major moves. Why? Look no further than pitching.

"Our starting five didn't get a lot of recognition at the start of the year," center fielder Jim Edmonds said. "But they're the reason we're here."

The rotation of Matt Morris, Woody Williams, Chris Carpenter, Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan combined for just 42 victories last season.

This time, St. Louis leads the majors with 53 quality starts, three more than the Cubs, and has the league's best record (52-32). Just past the halfway mark, and with slow starts from Morris and Williams, the starting five already has 39 victories.

The two biggest surprises have been Carpenter, out 20 months following shoulder surgery, and Marquis, who spent most of last year in the Atlanta Braves' system. Last year, they combined for no wins; this year, they already have 17.

Carpenter has become the de facto ace, a power pitcher who routinely gets deep into games. Before he was injured in 2002, Carpenter was a potential staff leader with Toronto. Now he could be having the breakout year he expected to have three seasons ago.

"In 2001, I was just learning to pitch a little bit," he said. "And before that I was just a heaver."

Marquis, 8-4 with a 4.10 ERA, also has resurrected his career after falling out of favor with the Braves. He had a 5.53 ERA with Atlanta last year but the Cardinals saw promise and acquired him along with reliever Ray King in a deal that sent J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero to the Braves.

When he beat the Mariners last Saturday, Marquis matched his career high for victories set in 2002.

"Good," pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "He's going to get a bunch more, too."

Jeff Suppan was a low-key free-agent acquisition for $6 million over two years and he has a staff-low 3.25 ERA to go with a 7-5 record.

"It's not just eating innings," manager Tony La Russa said. "It's quality pitching as well."

The guys at the top of the rotation have struggled the most.

Morris' speed is down from previous seasons. If he misses his location, it's trouble - with an NL-high 24 homers allowed. He's tied for the staff lead in victories and is 9-6, but with a staff-high 4.33 ERA.

Williams, an 18-game winner last year, stumbled to a 1-5 start after pitching only five innings in spring training because of shoulder tendinitis. He's finally found his stride, going 3-0 with a 1.89 ERA in his last five starts.

Middle relief also has been strong, keeping games tidy for closer Jason Isringhausen. King has been stingy enough (1.16 ERA) that he was disappointed at not getting All-Star consideration, and the bullpen was second in the major leagues with a 3.28 ERA.

And then there's the everyday lineup, which many consider the NL's best. Third baseman Scott Rolen, first baseman Albert Pujols and shortstop Edgar Renteria give the NL three infield starters from the same team for the first time since 1982.

"You see them do something amazing every day," catcher Mike Matheny said. "There's hardly a day that goes by that you don't see Scotty make a play that you shake your head about, or Edgar do the same thing, and all these guys at the plate."

Rolen, the leading vote-getter in the NL, is enjoying a career year with a major league-leading 80 RBIs and a .347 average along with Gold Glove defense despite an irritated left knee the last month.

Renteria's hitting has picked after he struggled at the plate earlier in the year. He hit the go-ahead homer in Tuesday's victory over the Reds.

"Sometimes you start slow, sometimes you start fast," La Russa said. "He goes about it the right way."

Pujols, the MVP runner-up behind Barry Bonds the last two seasons, was batting .307 with 21 homers and 57 RBIs. He's also settled in at first base, so much so that La Russa touts him as a future Gold Glover.

"He's got everything you need," La Russa said. "He's got a real quick first step or two. I think he'll win one before long."

At the break, the only hole appeared left field, but it hasn't been enough to slow this team. Still, La Russa is wary.

"The finish line is beyond visibility," he said. "We've just got to keep accumulating wins. It's as simple as that."

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