John Smoltz agreed to a deal with the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday, giving the 42-year-old former ace a chance to rejuvenate his career in the middle of a pennant race.

Smoltz joined the NL Central leaders shortly after he cleared waivers, following his release by Boston. He was 2-5 with an 8.33 ERA in eight starts for the Red Sox.

General manager John Mozeliak said Smoltz would likely start Sunday at San Diego, and would probably get at least a few turns in the rotation. The GM said Smoltz didn't ask to start as a "negotiating ploy."

"He had very little demands," Mozeliak said on a conference call. "He had no demands. From everything he had heard about this club, he was excited to take this opportunity. The reason for the start was just to get him work and know what we have."

The Cardinals hope Smoltz can either fill a void as the fifth starter or provide righthanded relief in the bullpen. Detroit, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas and Florida also were said to be interested in signing the longtime Atlanta star.

"He's going to do whatever we need the most," manager Tony La Russa said before the Cardinals faced the Dodgers. "It'll be really good for him to come out and stretch out his arm and work on his pitches and let us take a look at him."

One of the best big-game pitchers of his era, Smoltz is expected to join the team today when St. Louis plays at San Diego. The former Cy Young Award winner is the latest high-profile acquisition - with Matt Holliday - in a makeover that helped the Cardinals stretch their division lead to six games over the Chicago Cubs.

The risk for the Cardinals is small - Boston is responsible for the bulk of the contract. St. Louis is on the hook only for a prorated share of the major league minimum, about $100,000 through the rest of the season.

The Cardinals lobbied Smoltz with phone calls from La Russa, pitching coach Dave Duncan and infielder Mark DeRosa, a former teammate in Atlanta and another recent addition in St. Louis.

Smoltz is 212-152 with a 3.32 ERA and 154 saves in 21 seasons. An eight-time All-Star, he's the only pitcher in major league history with 200 wins and 150 saves.

Noteworthy

* The Washington Nationals are offering at least 2,000 tickets for $1 apiece for tomorrow's game against the Milwaukee Brewers - a matchup that will be preceded by an on-field news conference with No. 1 overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg, who agreed to a record-setting contract worth $15.1 million over 4 years.

* The Cincinnati Reds placed centerfielder Willy Taveras on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right quadriceps.

* The Dodgers placed righthander Hiroki Kuroda on the disabled list while he recovers from postconcussion symptoms. Also, the club signed free-agent pitcher Vicente Padilla, 2 days after the former Phillies righthander was released by Texas.

* Houston Astros lefthander Mike Hampton, currently on the DL, has a partially torn rotator cuff, but will not have surgery and hopes to pitch again this season.

In games last night:

* At San Diego, Aramis Ramirez hit two home runs, including a three-run shot in the third inning and Rich Harden (8-7) gave up one hit over seven innings as the Chicago Cubs defeated the Padres, 7-1.

* At Houston, Michael Bourn had three hits, two stolen bases and two runs scored, and the Astros beat the Marlins, 6-3. Florida committed three errors and stranded 16 runners, both season highs.

* At New York, Brian McCann hit a three-run homer and the Atlanta Braves took advantage of another gaffe by Luis Castillo to put together their own eight-run inning in a 15-2 win over the Mets.

* At Pittsburgh, Paul Maholm allowed one run pitching into the eighth inning, Ronny Cedeno homered and the Pirates finished a sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers with a 3-1 victory.

* At Washington, Carlos Gonzalez homered for the fourth straight game and Clint Barmes connected in his third in a row, helping Colorado beat the Nationals, 5-4.

* At Cincinnati, Nate Schierholtz' eighth- inning double drove in Edgar Renteria with the game's only run as San Francisco squeezed out a 1-0 win over the Reds.