John Tudor, one of those tight-lipped baseball plodders who learn to call frustration their friend, joined the company of his sport's immortals tonight.

Until this crisp evening, only two left-handed pitchers in baseball history had ever pitched 10 shutouts in one season -- Sandy Koufax (11) in 1963 and Carl Hubbell (10) in 1933.

Make room in the group picture for the St. Louis Cardinals' late bloomer.

For Tudor and the Cardinals, this evening's 5-0 victory over the manifestly disinterested Philadelphia Phillies was just another installment in their devious plot to ruin a wonderful pennant race. St. Louis, which has won 14 of its last 15 games, maintained a four-game lead over the New York Mets, which beat Chicago, 3-0. St. Louis and New York each has nine games left.

"Everybody's looking forward to our series with the Mets next week," said Cardinals third baseman Terry Pendleton, who tripled home two runs, giving him 15 RBI in the 14-1 streak. "Well, we're going to do our best to kill the race before they even get here."

If the Cardinals' binge qualifies as improbable, what word would fit Tudor?

"It's beyond my imagination how I can continue to do this," said Tudor, after his three-hit, no-walk, seven-strikeout jewel gave him his 20th win. "But I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth."

Less than four months ago, Tudor's season record was 1-7, his career mark 52-50. It's a good thing his middle name is Thomas, not Faust, because, since June 1, Tudor's record is 19-1.

At the moment, Tudor is in a strange and mysterious place, one which almost seems to frighten him. Nobody is this good for this long. And Tudor never thought he would be this good at all.

All 10 of his shutouts have come in his last 24 starts. Only seven men in history have had more than 10 shutouts in a season: Grover Cleveland Alexander, Bob Gibson, Christy Mathewson, Koufax, Walter Johnson, Ed Walsh and Dean Chance.

"I don't think about it," Tudor said. "As soon as you stand out there and think, 'This is nice. This is fun,' the next pitch will be a home run."

Tudor, traded by both Boston and Pittsburgh, pitched as clean, artful and apparently effortless a masterpiece as could be imagined. Tudor showed how he has, at age 31, become a stunningly complete pitcher.

His 87-88 mph fast ball, just hot enough to earn respect, burst in on hitter's fists all night, breaking bats. His slow curve, even on full counts, dipped home at the knees. His straight changeup made grown men look like silly lunging children.

When you never repeat the same speed, spin or spot, you can be a very demoralizing gentleman. The first inning tonight took two minutes.

For Tudor, who had a streak of 31 2/3 shutout innings earlier in the month, this was his fourth shutout of September and lowered his ERA to 2.04.

St. Louis scored in the second inning on a double-play grounder. Pendleton had his triple in the fourth off the end of Garry Maddox's glove to give Tudor a 3-0 lead. Willie McGee had an RBI single in the fifth, and a double-steal, with Andy Van Slyke going home, produced the final run in the sixth. St. Louis has stolen 293 bases this season.

It's not just bases St. Louis is trying to steal. It's a division flag.

When the Cardinals left New York City two weeks ago, they'd just lost two of three games to the Mets and were a game out of first place in the NL East.

Fans dutifully circled October 1-2-3 on their calendars -- New York at St. Louis. A showdown between two .600 teams. What a beaut. That's what everybody thought. Except the Cardinals and Manager Whitey Herzog, who said, "Sometimes it's how you play after a big series that really matters."

St. Louis, with its magic number reduced to six, is now an almost prohibitive favorite. By next Tuesday, the Mets may have to sweep all three games just to get close. This evening, Herzog had a perky middle-aged lady in his office who'd won a visit with him as first prize in a 50-mile bicycle race. "It's too late to see the dugout tonight," Herzog said. "Come back next week and I'll show it to you. Not Tuesday. All the writers will be here. Come Thursday. By then, it'll be quiet."

On Thursday, the Mets will still be here. But Herzog thinks the writers will be gone. In other words, he thinks the Mets will have been pronounced dead.

How the Cardinals have done their 14-1 tattoo on the Cubs, Phillies, Pirates and Expos is something of a puzzle.

Herzog has been without cleanup man Jack Clark for all but three of the last 29 games, yet is 22-7.

"I don't think he'll be back this year," said Herzog of his only player with more than 10 home runs (22). "Maybe for the playoffs. Who knows? I rest him two days longer than the doctors say. Third game back, he checks his swing, reinjures himself (ribs). Next pitch, he hits a homer to win the game.

"And that will probably turn out to be his last swing of the season."

Cesar Cedeno, a desperate late-season pickup, has hit a preposterous .476 with 17 RBI in 63 St. Louis at bats. Clark never hit like that. Now, Cedeno's hurt, too. The Cardinals roll on.

More than Tudor, more than anything, the last two pivotal weeks have been a bullpen creation. In 15 games, Herzog has used an amazing total of 50 pitchers; bullpen ERA: 1.05. The relief stars -- Jeff Lahti, Ken Dayley, Todd Worrell and Bill Campbell -- all have the same ERA since the Cardinals' Shea Stadium visit: 0.00.