In almost any athletic quest except those peculiar to pro basketball, hockey or bird watching, third place or thereabouts is the province of losers. Consider, however, the St. Louis Cardinals, that contrary gaggle nested in the middle of the National League East behind the Pirates and the Mets. They give the neighborhood some class.

As any Missouri bird watcher will tell you, the Cardinals, who may be overshadowed in the standings, have recently been the hottest team in baseball. At the beginning of June St. Louis was dead last with a 16-28 record, 15½ games behind the Mets. Even Bob Gibson, the perennially fine pitcher, had lost five games in a row. Since then, however, the Cardinals have taken off on a flight little short of phenomenal. Winning at an .800 pace, they made up 8½ games on the division leaders. A three-game sweep at New York that included an 11-0 win was the highlight of their gala June. Throughout their streak they averaged almost five runs and 10 hits per game. Twice they won seven in a row, and once six in a row.

Almost as many theories have surfaced for the Cards' sorry break from the gate as for the surge that has replaced it. Cincinnati Manager Sparky Anderson offers the intriguing premise that fan reaction to the April players' strike had a lot to do with the Cardinal troubles.

"I'll tell you," he says, "Cincinnati and St. Louis are a lot alike: two country towns with conservative people. When the players went on strike, they hurt these people. For a month here in Cincinnati we had the coldest fans you'll ever see. I think they had the same thing in St. Louis, an ill will that the players really felt. It produced uneasiness, a thing that had to be battled with winning."

The Cards' collective psyche was further depressed by August Busch, hardest of the hard-nosed club owners faced with the strike. Barely concealing his anger, Busch traded away such stars as Pitcher Steve Carlton when Carlton held out for more money during spring training. The boss was mad, nobody was safe and everybody knew it. Some of the Cards did not take a secure breath until the June 15 trading deadline had passed.

Whatever the reason, the Cardinals played bad ball in April and May. Only team captain Joe Torre, the 1971 MVP and batting champion, hit consistently. "Our pitchers were good," says Dal Maxvill, the team's slick-fielding shortstop who raised his batting average 104 points during the June boom. "We just weren't delivering the key hits. Now our pitchers are still holding up and we're playing good ball behind them. I know the expression 'Put it all together' is overworked, but it really describes us."

As the Cardinals batted their way back to respectability, Gibson's won-lost record began to look the way a Gibson record should. Eight straight times he won, and he was most impressive last Friday when he gave Houston only four hits. Lou Brock hit safely in 32 of 35 games and had a .367 average for June. Matty Alou sprayed singles and doubles around with persistent cue-shot artistry, and Ted Simmons, the only unsigned, switch-hitting catcher in the majors, became Manager Red Schoendienst's fourth regular .300 hitter. With relief pitching scarce, Cardinal starters had obligingly completed a total of 34 games, the most in the league.

"Look around this clubhouse and you see a lot of talent," Maxvill says. "But the way we had been playing, we were making ourselves sick. When four or five of us would go to dinner or something, we'd say, 'We're just too good to play this way.' And we were. It may be a team game and all, but unless each guy gets his own act organized, it's tough."

It is ironic that just as the Cardinals were approaching the status of a legitimate pennant contender, they suffered a blow that may make third place difficult to hold. On a Fourth of July that was no celebration for Schoendienst's the team lost its fine, new starting pitcher, Scipio Spinks, after a collision at home plate with Johnny Bench. Spinks scored from first on Luis Melendez' double, but his impact with Bench resulted in torn right knee ligaments that will keep him out for the rest of the season.

Spinks' injury leaves Schoendienst with Gibson, Rick Wise, Reggie Cleveland and Al Santorini as his only frontline pitchers, and although the bullpen was strengthened with the addition of Diego Segui, who won two games and saved three others after coming from the A's, the pitching problem is worrisome.

"The club that's gonna win it." Schoendienst says, "is the one with good pitching. Especially against the Pirates. They're a few places ahead of us, but we've been sneaking up." And with that he began to scan the roster of pitchers down on the farm in Tulsa.

Whether the Cards' high flying continues or not, bird watching ought to remain a popular sport with the folks in Missouri.

PHOTOGIBSON: EIGHT UP AFTER FIVE DOWN
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)