The St. Louis Cardinals are one of those teams that make you kick yourself for whiffing on them back in spring training when it was time to predict division winners. How could we not see this coming, with the Cardinals holding the best record in the National League and a nine-game lead in the Central Division?

If it wasn't obvious then -- when everyone was calling the NL Central a two-team race between Houston and Chicago -- it is now: The Cardinals are very nearly a perfect baseball team.

There are obvious reasons for this, such as an offense propelled by MVP candidates Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols, and a well-balanced starting rotation whose five members combined have missed only one start all year.

But that hardly begins to tell the tale of why the Cardinals might be the most perfect squad since the 116-win Seattle Mariners of 2001. They have the major components to blow away regular season competition, and the subtle weapons to win in the postseason. (And yes, we know that the Mariners were trounced by the New York Yankees in the 2001 ALCS.)

Like those Mariners, these Cardinals have Gold Glove candidates all over the field, from shortstop Edgar Renteria to third baseman Rolen to catcher Mike Matheny to center fielder Jim Edmonds. Scouts also rave about Pujols's play at first base.

They have exceptional setup men in Ray King and Steve Kline on the left side, and Julian Tavares on the right, carrying leads to closer Jason Isringhausen and giving Manager Tony La Russa all the ammo he needs for late-inning matchups.

They have a deep, veteran-laden bench, anchored by Ray Lankford, John Mabry and Roger Cedeno, that will drive opposing managers batty trying to match up late in games.

"They are," said ESPN analyst Buck Martinez, "the most well-rounded team in baseball."

Having already demoralized the Houston Astros, who are now a shocking 14 games back, the Cardinals very nearly put the Chicago Cubs in wild-card mode this week by completing an emotional, high-intensity two-game sweep at Wrigley Field. The sweep was capped by an 11-8 win Tuesday in which the Cardinals overcame a 7-1 deficit.

"We've been making a statement to ourselves," La Russa told reporters after Tuesday's win. "We're going about it the right way, and we like our talent."

Because the teams are finished with head-to-head play -- an unfortunate scheduling quirk that cheats fans out of the possibility of a dramatic stretch run -- the Cubs will have a very difficult time digging out of this hole, particularly with the Cardinals enjoying one of the easiest schedules in the league over the final two months.

Things are so swell in St. Louis, General Manager Walt Jocketty has shown almost no interest in bringing on future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, despite overtures from the Arizona Diamondbacks' ace. If the Cardinals do anything, it will be a minor tweak, such as adding another right-hander in the bullpen.

The Cardinals realize what we all should have seen in March: This is very nearly a perfect team. And you don't mess with perfection.

Panic in Beantown

Major Red Sox angst has hit New England a little early this year -- it usually doesn't come until October -- with the Red Sox just 37-38 since May 1, following a series loss to the Orioles this week and a loss to the Yankees on Friday night.

Nomar Garciaparra is still limping around with a sore Achilles' tendon, and his decision to sit out a Yankees game earlier this month was treated as a regional act of treason. Manny Ramirez has been acting even more like a space cadet than usual, such as when he inexplicably cut off a relay throw from center fielder Johnny Damon, enabling Orioles designated hitter David Newhan to leg out an inside-the-park homer.

Things are so bad in Beantown, role player Gabe Kapler took his teammates to task after a 10-5 loss to the Orioles on Wednesday night, saying the Red Sox sometimes appear "semi-lifeless."

Down 91/2 games after Friday, the Red Sox' series with the Yankees this weekend now has the potential to be a funeral march -- or at least an occasion to refocus on the wild card.

"We need to start doing it soon," Damon said, "or we won't have a chance this year."

A Short Stay?

There are rumors out of Houston that the Astros will turn around and place Carlos Beltran back on the trade market, just a month after mortgaging a good deal of their future to acquire the all-star center fielder.

Beltran's addition did nothing to stop the Astros' slide, and now owner Drayton McLane might cut his losses and try to coax a couple of good young players out of some other team to offset the losses of closer Octavio Dotel and catching prospect John Buck.

Around the League

The Florida Marlins have emerged as a potential destination for Diamondbacks center fielder (and ex-Oriole) Steve Finley. The Marlins this week had a top scout checking out Finley, who has a full no-trade clause but who has indicated a willingness to waive it for a chance to play for a contender. . . .

Some have questioned whether the Cubs are putting ace Mark Prior's health by sending him to the mound on Sunday following another bout with elbow soreness. The questioning was intense enough that Prior felt it necessary to address it.

"I've talked to some of the best doctors in the country, and they say they agree with what we're doing," Prior told reporters. "The best way for me to get through this now is for me to stay in a good rhythm, stay [in a five-day] rotation that I'm used to, and hope [the soreness] doesn't creep up." . . .

The Johnson sweepstakes will heat up again beginning Tuesday, when Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo returns from a vacation in Europe. By that point, there will be exactly four days until the 4 p.m. July 31 trade deadline.

Although the Anaheim Angels have the ability to put together an appealing package of young players in return, and the Yankees have the most financial wherewithal to absorb the $21 million or so remaining on Johnson's contract, it appears increasingly likely Johnson will be staying put.

Relief pitcher Steve Kline, St. Louis Cardinals are set up for success. Team is loaded with excellent fielders and veteran bench.After trading a good part of their future for Carlos Beltran, the struggling Houston Astros may be ready to toss it in and put the outfielder back on the market.