ST. LOUIS -- What was once virtually inconceivable is now at least plausible. The Cardinals are in a playoff race -- maybe even two of them.
A sweep of the Braves, capped by Sunday's 6-3 win, pulled the Cardinals within 4 1/2 games of Atlanta, which leads the chase for the National League Wild Card. The Brewers beat the Phillies, so St. Louis remains six back of Milwaukee in the NL Central.
Even manager Tony La Russa, who steadfastly insists upon paying attention only to his own team's record, acknowledged that the standings look a lot better than they did a week ago.
"I feel like we are [in the race] if we keep winning," La Russa said. "It's exciting baseball. Guys have come through all over the roster. We've got a shot."
The Cards took advantage of an uncharacteristically shaky Tim Hudson -- or more accurately, a brief shaky spell from Hudson. Yadier Molina's three-run double highlighted a five-run third inning against Atlanta's ace, and the homestanding Redbirds held on from there.
The Braves, once in dominant control of the Wild Card race, have lost eight of 10. The Brewers won for the first time since Monday to keep their division lead from shrinking for the sixth straight day.
"It starts somewhere," said Lance Berkman, "and a five-game winning streak is a good start. Eespecially against a couple of the teams that you're chasing."
On Tuesday morning, following a home loss to the Brewers, the Cardinals were 10 1/2 games out in the division and 8 1/2 back in the Wild Card. Since then, they've won every day while both of the teams they are chasing have stumbled. The odds are still against the Redbirds, but their chances are radically improved from the beginning of the week.
The latest win came thanks to a lengthy two-out rally at the expense of the Braves' best starter. A hit batter, a sacrifice and an infield groundout put Daniel Descalso at third with two outs. Hudson then hit another batter, Jon Jay, and Albert Pujols singled in the first run. A walk to Matt Holliday loaded the bases and Berkman drew another walk to make it 2-0.
That brought up Molina, who jumped on a first-pitch fastball and poked it down the right-field line. All three runners scored, though Molina was thrown out trying to advance to third.
"I know Tim Hudson is an aggressive pitcher," Molina said. "He tries to throw strike one every time, and I was ready. I was ready to hit the fastball, and he threw it."
A Holliday RBI single tacked on another run in the fifth. The Cards became the first team to score more than five runs off Hudson since the Angels hung eight on him in May.
"I just didn't make very good pitches," Hudson said. "I was struggling with my command. Actually, the best pitches I made were the ones that scored the runs. I made a pretty good pitch to Albert and he blooped it in there. A sinker in on Molina and he inside-outed it to right field."
Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook started out sharp but ran into a little bit of trouble in the middle innings. He worked out of a bases-loaded one-out jam in the fourth, but three straight singles in the sixth chased him.
Kyle McClellan permitted a run in the eighth, but overall, the Cardinals' bullpen was sharp once again. Jason Motte closed it out with three strikeouts for his fifth save. The Cardinals are 79-67, the 12 games over .500 the most they've been all season.
They now head to Pittsburgh, while the Braves go home to face Florida. The hill is still tall, but it's an awful lot shorter than it was a week ago.
"It's still a very daunting challenge," Berkman said. "We've entered the realm of possibility, but we've just entered it."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.