Houston’s win at Philly and the Cardinals’ latest failure against San Diego brought the Astros within 2 1/2 games of the NL Central lead with less than a week remaining. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Bernie Miklasz writes the Redbirds’ miserable finish to the 2006 campaign has echoes of another infamous fold.

The late Gene Mauch managed the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, and his name always will be bordered by cobwebs and black crepe. An otherwise respected manager, Mauch’s reputation took an eternal, irreversible hit that year when the Phillies choked on a 6½ game lead with 12 games remaining.

The benefactors of Philly’s epic fold were the Cardinals. Perhaps the baseball gods figure the Cardinals owe them one, to balance history’s ledger.

Or maybe this is simply a shorthanded and bad Cardinals team, one more reminiscent of the old St. Louis Browns than of the 105-win Cardinals of 2004, or the 100-win team in 2005.

At times like these it’s hard to remember, but the Cardinals are in first place, and they are still kicking. Jeff Suppan, emblematic of the recent reversal of fortunes, lasted only 32ž3 innings Monday, getting drilled for five runs (four earned), as the Padres opened a 5-1 lead.

The Cardinals gamely picked themselves up, drawing even at 5-5 on a dramatic stroke by prodigal center fielder Jim Edmonds. In a classic Edmonds’ Hollywood moment, Jimmy Baseball pinch hit in the fourth, hoisting a bat in a game for the first time since Aug. 26, and promptly rocketed a three-run homer to the seats in right.

It was an emphatic response by Edmonds, who was dogged in absentia by La Russa over the weekend in Houston. Gradually shaking off the symptoms of post-concussion syndrome, Edmonds endangered his improved health in absorbing a post-home run pounding from exuberant mates.

“If this was a movie, we would have won the game,” La Russa said of the Edmonds homer. “But we didn’t.”

Actually this was a movie. The latest scene in a horror film.

The Sultan Of Sloth was a late scratch last night due to reccuring gout. Amazing how rarely we get to use the word “gout” when discussing professional athletes.

If you’re a lonely, misunderstood, married woman living in the Nation’s Capitol, cheer up. Tony Peña might be headed your way.