ST. LOUIS -- The nerve center of the Padres' surprisingly dynamic running game is the first-base coaching box. There stands one of the game's all-time great basestealers and baserunners, looking for keys to pass along to those who reach safely.

Manager Bruce Bochy has given Davey Lopes the authority to send a runner if his instincts tell him the time is right, and the Padres clearly are responding to the coach's urgings, ranking second in the National League in stolen bases.

"I never had that authority before," Lopes said. "Most managers control that. I have the luxury that if I see something, to go up and tell a guy, `Let's go.' It happens a lot. These are the same things I looked for as a baserunner. 'Watch this, watch that. Do you see it?' They're all smart enough to see something. Sometimes a guy's a little hesitant to go, and I say, 'Everything's on me if you don't make it. Don't worry.'

"We're trying to be aggressive, manufacture runs. I don't want guys running crazy, making outs, but if you can take a base here and there, it helps. It's also exciting to the fans."

Through 29 games, the Padres had been successful on 24 of 30 steal attempts, compared to 17 of 21 by the opposition. Mark Loretta was leading the Padres with six steals, but he knows that won't last long. Dave Roberts, assuming he stays healthy, figures to be among the league leaders by the All-Star break, if not sooner.

Easing into it after missing the first two weeks of the season with a groin injury, Roberts had stolen four times in his first 14 games with the team. He took off and delivered No. 5 in the top of the first Friday night after singling as the leadoff hitter against Jeff Suppan. A run was manufactured when Roberts advanced aggressively on Mark Loretta's roller to short and scored on Ryan Klesko's infield out -- exactly the way Lopes likes to see the game played.

Roberts has stolen at least 38 bases each of the past three seasons, with a career high of 45 with the 2002 Dodgers. He has the green light, but everyone else looks to the coaching box, either to Rob Picciolo at third or Lopes at first. Picciolo hangs out the signs from Bochy; Lopes operates independently.

"He has complete authority," Loretta said of Lopes, who stole 557 bases in the Major Leagues, twice leading the National League, and was successful 83 percent of the time. "He'll tell us what the pitcher's time is to the plate, maybe give a nod here or there if he thinks it's a good pitch to run on.

"We know taking any additional base we can is going to be crucial, because runs are at a premium in PETCO Park. It's not like we're going to get on and run and run. Roberts is the only one who gets on and runs on his own. Most of us are doing it off the pitcher or count. We're looking for opportunities when they present themselves."

Jeff Burroughs has two steals and is confident he'll be joining the fun.

"If I'm hitting seventh or eighth, I have to be a little more careful," he said. "You don't ordinarily want the eighth, ninth hitter leading off an inning. But I would like to run. It's an important part of the game. I had knee surgery at the end of the [2004] season, and my legs are feeling good now. It kind of slowed me down in Spring Training and early in the season, but now the knee feels good and my legs feel strong."

Lopes feels philosophical changes in baseball have slowed down the running game, with general managers coming into authority with other ideas how to generate offense.

"If you have a weapon," he said, "it's crazy not to use it. Remember the old Cardinals of the '80s, with Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Ozzie Smith, those guys? They used to drive teams crazy. In our park, speed helps. And stealing bases can be a real plus to your ballclub."

Bullish on the pen: An authority on bullpens, Chris Hammond is getting increasingly bullish on the Padres stable of relief pitchers.

"They have all the capabilities of being one of the better ones," Hammond, the veteran left-hander, said. "We had one in Atlanta that was the best one I've ever been part of, and this one is getting there. It has everything you want in a good bullpen. It's really a good sign when you have good pitchers pitching in blowouts."

Hammond, 39, is with his seventh Major League team in his 14th season. With the Braves in 2002, he had his best season, going 7-2 with an 0.95 ERA in 63 appearances. He was 4-1 with a 2.68 ERA last season with the A's, signing with the Padres as a free agent.

Hammond and Dennys Reyes have been joined by another southpaw, Randy Williams, in the bullpen. The right side features Akinori Otsuka, Scott Linebrink and Rudy Seanez, the purpose of all six being to get the ball to Trevor Hoffman with a lead.

The plan has been working beautifully during the Padres' recent surge of six victories in seven games going into Friday night's assignment against the always dangerous Cardinals.

"Realistically, if we get five good innings out of our starter, we're in good shape with our bullpen," said Brian Giles.

Hammond has picked up three victories already and has won his past six decisions dating to last year. He's the rare left-hander who creates problems for right-handed hitters with his changeup. "It has a different look to right-handed hitters," Hammond said.

With Woody Williams on the 15-day disabled list with a strained oblique, Darrell May moved from the bullpen into the rotation, his place taken by Williams.

"As long as we stay healthy and confident," Hammond, the senior member of the fraternity along with Hoffman, "it can take a lot of pressure off the starters."

Gold glovework: Bochy was still raving a day later about the superlative play of Sean Burroughs at third base in Thursday night's 8-3 win. Burroughs made several highlight plays while getting nine assists.

"I got more action in one game than I get in some series," Burroughs said. "It feels good to contribute to the team even if you don't have a good night with the bat."

Burroughs was 0-for-3, a rare hitless night during a recent offensive surge, but his glove took the Cardinals out of several potential big innings.

"Burroughs was just tremendous down there," Bochy said. "He saved us some runs with his glove."

The best in the league at the position? Burroughs nods toward Scott Rolen. Making an impression on Cardinals' star, Burroughs twice in the series has robbed him of hits, making a sprawling stab in the bottom of the first Friday night to get [Darrell] May, making his first start of the season, out of the inning.

Burroughs, in his fourth season, keeps making mental notes and adjustments -- and he spends his winters picking up film tips from the greats.

"I've always kind of made it something to do in the offseason," he said. "I get tapes of guys like Brooks Robinson, Graig Nettles, Doug DeCinces, guys like that. I watch how they get to the ball. It seems they're always anticipating. When you're shy defensively, that's when you make an error. You have to be in the game, literally on your toes."

On deck: Adam Eaton (3-1, 3.48 ERA) goes to the mound Saturday at Busch Stadium, facing the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter (4-1, 3.86) in a duel of right-handers.