-- At the start of the season, the St. Louis Cardinals' weakness seemed to be their unsung rotation.

Instead, a mostly modest starting five has nearly kept pace with more celebrated staffs in Chicago and Houston, throwing up more than its share of zeros.

In the team's just-completed six-game homestand, Matt Morris and Chris Carpenter and the other starters combined for a 1.96 ERA and four victories, pitching seven or more innings in five of the games.

"I'm a very optimistic, very positive guy," Manager Tony La Russa said. "I think they've pitched like we expected them to pitch, which is good and getting better."

The members of the rotation totaled just 42 victories last year. Woody Williams won a career-best 18 games and innings-eater Jeff Suppan won a career-high 13 for other clubs.

But former 20-game winner Morris slumped to 11, Jason Marquis spent half of the season in the Braves' minor league system and Carpenter missed the entire year with a second shoulder operation that also kept him out of most of the 2002 season.

It's not quite a bargain basement five, considering Morris and Williams combine to make about $20 million. But the other three were obtained with the budget in mind.

Together, they've piled up 23 quality starts of six or more innings, second best in the major leagues to the Cubs' 25. It's helped the Cardinals, widely picked to finish third in the NL Central, stay within striking distance in the early going.

The World Series champion Florida Marlins managed only six runs in a three-game weekend series, losing two of three.

"It's a pretty good rotation, and with their offense they'll score some runs and give the staff some breathing room," Marlins Manager Jack McKeon said. "I like them."

The surprise is the pitchers have been impressive without much contribution from Williams, 1-4 with a 4.69 ERA after getting very light work in spring training. Slowed by shoulder tendinitis, Williams totaled five spring innings.

Williams battled for seven innings and 124 pitches in a 3-2 loss on Sunday, giving up nine hits but only one earned run. His previous start, a dominant eight-inning effort against the Braves during which he gave up one run on four hits, was his best of the season, though.

"It's nice to have back-to-back starts where I'm somewhat in control," Williams said. "But I've got to start winning ballgames and start eliminating innings when they score more than one run."

The most impressive pitchers thus far have been Marquis, who fell out of favor in Atlanta and came to St. Louis in the J.D. Drew trade, and the rebuilt Carpenter.

Marquis (2-3, 3.44) could easily have four or five victories, given his staff-low ERA. Carpenter (4-1, 3.86) struggled his first few times out, perhaps rusty from his layoff, but has allowed two runs in 151/3 innings in winning his last two starts.

Suppan (3-4, 4.29) has been as advertised, averaging six innings per outing despite an off-game his last time out. Suppan's 31/3-inning start, during which he threw 84 pitches, was the only one of the homestand that taxed the bullpen at all.

Suppan shook it off. "Tomorrow is a new day, and I'll go on from here," he said.

That leaves Morris (4-3, 3.63), who's been more of an artist than a hard thrower at least in the early season. His velocity has dropped off to the extent the radar gun display was turned off for one of his recent starts, although the Cardinals insisted it was an electrical malfunction.

Chris Carpenter is among Cardinals' unheralded rotation that has kept team in contention. "They've pitched like we expected them to pitch, which is good and getting better," Tony La Russa said.