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NL Central: Cardinals fading in playoff race

As suddenly as the Milwaukee Brewers have caught fire of late, the St. Louis Cardinals' playoff hopes are fading just as fast.

Milwaukee has won 19 of its last 22 to open a sizeable 6 1/2-game lead over St. Louis in the National League Central standings. Currently, it represents the second-largest division lead in baseball. The deficit has more than doubled since the beginning of August, when the Brewers' lead was only 2 1/2 games. In addition, the Cards also trail the Atlanta Braves by 6 1/2 games for the Wild Card spot.

Although the offense continues to lead the National League in runs scored, too many runners have been stranded on base in tight games. There has been an increase in untimely errors in the field, while the pitching has also continued to struggle.

The starting pitching boasts a quality start rate (six or more innings pitched, three or fewer runs allowed) of only 50 percent, the fourth-lowest mark in the National League. The bullpen has blown 21 saves this season, the second-highest total in the NL behind only the Washington Nationals. Combined, that has been a recipe for more than a few agonizing losses for St. Louis.

Tuesday's 5-4 extra-inning loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates was a microcosm of the Cardinals' season. With the score tied 3-3 late in the game, the team stranded runners in scoring position in both the seventh and eighth innings. After breaking the tie in the top of the ninth inning, Cardinals closer Fernando Salas blew his fourth save of the season when he served up a first- pitch home run to Neil Walker, forcing extra innings. Pittsburgh's Garrett Jones led off the bottom of the 11th inning with a game-winning home run against newly-acquired lefty specialist Arthur Rhodes.

"Right now we need to win," starter Chris Carpenter stressed after the loss. "And we had a chance to tonight and we weren't able to pull through. When you've got this amount of games left and you're six games back and you have a chance to win a game, you need to win it."

Meanwhile, with each Brewers' victory, the sense of urgency is heightened a bit more for the Cards. After an off-day Thursday, the Cardinals will play 10 in a row against the Cubs, Pirates and Dodgers, all of whom are below .500. St. Louis will get another off-day Monday Aug. 29 before a key three-game series in Milwaukee entering the final month of the season. By that time, the Cards will need to have closed the gap.

"If we don't win and Milwaukee doesn't lose, we're not going to win it," Cardinals right fielder Lance Berkman said. "We've got to string something together here. There's still plenty of time to do that. It's not like it's a lost cause. I still feel like we're right there."

"It's a tough league," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "If you can't handle it, go home."

FAMILIAR PIRATES HAVE RETURNED

One of the feel-good stories of the first half was the resurgent Pittsburgh Pirates, who entered the All-Star break above .500 for the first time since 1992.

So far, the story of the second half has been the rapid collapse of those very same Pirates, as the team has been stuck in a free fall for the past few weeks with seemingly no end in sight. Since July 25, when the Pirates sat atop the division and were six games above .500, they have dropped 17 of 22 to come crashing back down to Earth. They entered Thursday's idle date six games below .500 and, incredibly, 14 games out of first place. No matter how you slice it, that's an almost incomprehensible fall from grace in a span of only three weeks.

Thursday's off-day could not have come at a better time. While players all across the league battle fatigue at this time of year, the Pirates were particularly happy to be able to spend a day off in Pittsburgh for the first time since July 21. Their next day off at home won't come until Sept. 8. Manager Clint Hurdle stressed the importance of being able to disengage from baseball at home, particularly for such a young team still trying to adjust to the rigors of a 162-game schedule.

"A day off at home is much better than a day off on the road," Hurdle told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "You're in your own bed, you're in your own environment, you're in your own comfort zone. Much better. They don't even compare. You like the day off on the road, but it's so much better (at home)."

The Pirates are back at it Friday night against Cincinnati, beginning a stretch that will see them play 21 games in the next 20 days, which includes two makeup dates.

ZAMBRANO ERA IN CHICAGO APPEARS TO BE OVER

Since making his Major League debut with the Chicago Cubs in 2001, Carlos Zambrano has started 282 games in parts of 11 seasons, each one with the Cubs. But following Friday's well-documented meltdown in Atlanta, he may not get another.

After his ejection for throwing at Atlanta's Chipper Jones, and subsequent apparent retirement when he cleared out his locker and left during the ninth inning, Zambrano was placed on the 30-day disqualified list by the Cubs. Casey Coleman was recalled from Triple-A Iowa on Wednesday to take Zambrano's turn in the rotation, although the right-hander failed to make it through four innings.

Despite more than $19 million remaining on his contract through next season, the Cubs appear ready to part ways with the embattled pitcher. Former general manager Jim Hendry, upon rejoining the team in Houston this week, declined to discuss Zambrano any further. The veteran pitcher has had a long list of highly-publicized blowups and behavior issues over the years that have overshadowed his on-field accomplishments.

"I want to keep pitching for the Cubs," Zambrano told Comcast SportsNet Chicago on Monday. "It was a moment of frustration Friday night, and I pitched so bad I wanted to retire, you know. I don't want to be making $18 million and pitch like crap."

Upon becoming a full-time starter in 2003, Zambrano went 111-64 with a 3.43 ERA through last year. In that span, he earned three All-Star nods, led the NL with 16 wins in '06, and followed that up with a career-best 18 wins in '07. This year, however, he simply has not been able to get batters out, as Zambrano's 4.82 ERA is his worst since he was a September callup back in '01.

Like Hendry, Cubs manager Mike Quade said he is done discussing Zambrano.

"I'm not dealing with that today, that���s for sure," Quade said before Monday's game against Houston.

Unfortunately for Hendry, the Cubs fired him Friday. Hendry had held the position since July 5, 2002, and was the third longest-tenured GM in the National League. He was replaced on an interim basis by assistant GM Randy Bush.

ASTROS HAVE REASON TO BE EXCITED ABOUT FUTURE

With the Houston Astros continuing to boast the worst record in the majors at more than 40 games below .500 and counting, there isn't much else to do but look toward the future. And in the wake of some recent moves, that future is starting to look just a bit brighter.

Between the 2010 and the 2011 non-waiver trade deadlines, the team parted ways with Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Jeff Keppinger, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn -- a combined 13 All-Star nods between them. In return, Houston netted a total of 15 players, including third baseman Jimmy Paredes and closer Mark Melancon, who are contributing to the big league club this year. Of the 10 players the Astros acquired in trades this year, four are ranked by MLB.com among the top 10 prospects in the system, including pitcher Jarred Cosart at No. 1 and first baseman Jonathan Singleton at No. 2, both of whom were acquired in the Pence trade.

"We're excited about all 10 that we got back these trades," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "As painful as the deals were to make in the short term, we think the long-term benefit could be very significant. We were excited about the first nine (players) and really excited about (Domingo) Santana coming over as the final piece in the Philly deal."

Meanwhile, the team was able to sign 35 picks in this year's draft class, including the draft-deadline signings of center fielder George Springer and pitcher Jack Armstrong. Springer received the second-highest signing bonus in franchise history, at $2.525 million. Still, according to Baseball America, the Astros paid $4.7 million in bonuses to their first 10 selections, compared to $6.35 million to the first 11 players selected in 2010.

BREWERS TAKING CONTROL OF NL CENTRAL

Thanks to their recent tear, the Milwaukee Brewers are threatening to run away with the National League Central crown. Of their last 22 games, the Brewers have lost only three, one of which came Thursday night against Dodgers All- Star left-hander Clayton Kershaw. Still, Milwaukee took three of four from the Dodgers and went 6-1 on its homestand.

The Brewers have been a textbook example of how pitching wins ballgames, having scored three or fewer runs in each of their last six games.

"I think, beyond the way we're playing, we've gotten closer as a team," first baseman Prince Fielder said of his team's recent play. "That's the key. We're a real team now. The record is going to be fine. With the talent we have, we're going to win."

Now that their homestand is finished, the Brew Crew will hit the road for the next seven outings. Beginning Friday night, they are in New York to face the Mets for a weekend series, and then it's off to Pittsburgh to take on the Pirates in a four-game set. Both clubs are under .500, but given the way they've been playing of late, the Brewers are ready for all comers.

"Except for (Thursday's) game, we're playing great," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "We're going to have these games. I'm not that concerned about it. We haven't hit for a few games. We've faced some really good pitching. Today, certainly. So going out on the road, I like what we're doing."

BAKER, REDS NOT READY TO MOVE MVP VOTTO

Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker was asked this week about the possibility of moving first baseman Joey Votto to left field in order to make room for rookie Yonder Alonso in the everyday lineup. According to both Baker and Votto, that won't be happening anytime soon.

"You don't know if Votto can play left field," Baker said. "You just can't stick anyone in left field... Left field is the hardest to play."

The debate has gained legs because Alonso, the seventh overall pick in the 2008 draft, has not had a position to call home since being called up at the end of July. Alonso, a natural first baseman, transitioned to left field for 62 games at Triple-A Louisville this year. But since joining the Reds, he has had some shaky moments. After a misplayed ball near the line led to an inside- the-park home run against the Cubs earlier this month, the youngster went 10 days before getting his next start in left.

There is no denying Alonso's offensive abilities, as the 24-year-old Cuban is sporting a .417 batting average in 27 plate appearances since his callup. Meanwhile, Votto, the NL's reigning MVP, spent years honing his craft to become one of the game's top defensive first basemen.

"(Votto) works as hard as any first baseman I've seen," Baker said. "He is the MVP at first base."

Baker also noted that it could weaken the team defensively at two positions, as Alonso is reported to be an average to below average fielder at first base.

"How would that work out if Joey is below average or average in (left)?" Baker quipped. "You see the importance of defense in this league, big time."