St. Louis' series with the lowly Houston Astros carries extra importance because wins could be hard to come by for the Cardinals over the next week.
So far, the defending World Series champions have been focused on the task at hand.
With a daunting road trip looming, the Cardinals look to complete their sweep over the Astros on Thursday.
St. Louis (67-56) has won its first two games in the series with Houston (39-85) and taken advantage of the struggles of Pittsburgh and Los Angeles to move one-half game ahead of the Pirates and one up on the Dodgers for the NL's second wild-card spot.
Manager Mike Matheny admitted that he keeps an eye on the out of town scoreboard this time of year."We try not to look up there too often because we do believe we control our destiny by how we play the game," he said after Wednesday's 4-2 win. "But it would be a lie to say we didn't pay attention to what other people in the league are doing."
The Cardinals' next stretch could have a huge impact on their playoff hopes, as they embark on a 10-game road trip Friday with series against NL Central-leading Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and NL East-leading Washington.
Before looking too far ahead, though, St. Louis tries to sweep the Astros for the first time since April 2009.
John Jay is 5 for 9 with two RBIs in the first two games of this series, while Yadier Molina is 4 for 7 with three runs driven in.
Allen Craig has singled in each contest, and is batting .395 during a career-best 11-game hitting streak.
The Astros were limited to just three hits Wednesday against Kyle Lohse and a pair of relievers, and have combined for three runs and 14 hits in losing their first three games under interim manager Tony DeFrancesco."We're not scoring enough runs," DeFrancesco said. "We're trying to give these guys confidence. Hopefully more confidence, more at-bats, things will change for them. You have to hit a ball hard and it find a hole and that's not happening."
The offense hopes for better luck against Jake Westbrook (12-9, 3.50 ERA), who takes the ball two days after agreeing to a $9.75 million, one-year contract to stay in St. Louis.
Westbrook had his five-start winning streak end in Friday's 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh, as he gave up two runs and six hits in 7 2-3 innings. The runs scored on a wild pitch and a passed ball in the fourth inning.
Despite the disappointing outcome, the right-hander still has a 1.69 ERA in his last three starts.
This will be his first start of the season against the Astros, against whom he went 2-0 with a 5.27 ERA in three starts last year.
Houston counters with Dallas Keuchel (1-5, 4.99), who'll be making his first appearance against the Cardinals.
After recording a 10.42 ERA in losing his four July starts, the rookie left-hander has a 3.38 ERA in three outings this month. Against Arizona on Friday, he gave up two runs and four hits in 6 2-3 innings, but was saddled with a 3-1 loss.
Despite his solid August pitching, he is 0-1 this month, and hasn't won since June 23, his second career start.
The Astros have lost eight of Keuchel's 10 starts, and are 7-42 since June 28.
|August 22, 2012||Justin Maxwell||Day-to-Day||Bruised right index finger|
|August 07, 2012||Jordan Schafer||15-Day DL||Left shoulder separation|
|August 02, 2012||Francisco Cordero||15-Day DL||Inflamed right big toe|
|July 31, 2012||Wilton Lopez||Day-to-Day||Right elbow tightness|
|July 15, 2012||Jed Lowrie||15-Day DL||Sprained right ankle|
|July 14, 2012||Jed Lowrie||Day-to-Day||Right ankle|
|St. Louis Cardinals|
|August 21, 2012||Carlos Beltran||Day-to-Day||Right hand injury|
|August 16, 2012||Yadier Molina||Day-to-Day||Back stiffness|
|August 08, 2012||Allen Craig||Day-to-Day||Sore ribs|
|August 03, 2012||Lance Berkman||15-Day DL||Right knee inflammation|
|July 28, 2012||Rafael Furcal||Day-to-Day||Stiff back|
|July 26, 2012||David Freese||Day-to-Day||Left game - right calf cramp|
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Nothing was working for Jake Westbrook , a groundball pitcher who gave up three sacrifice flies.
No worries with the St. Louis Cardinals offense ringing up 17 hits against a team that's still waiting for the adrenaline charge that usually comes with changing managers.
David Freese 's three-run homer snapped the team's seven-game long-ball drought and Matt Holliday 's three-run double was the go-ahead blow as St. Louis beat the Houston Astros 13-5 Thursday to complete a three-game sweep.
"I was in trouble the whole day, really," Westbrook said. "Our offense came through and really picked me up. Picked this team up."
Freese and Matt Holliday each had four RBIs and Allen Craig had three hits and three RBIs. The Cardinals shrugged aside a 4-0, fourth-inning deficit and sent Houston to its seventh straight loss.
"This team, they get the blood in the water and they can pile them on," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said.
The Astros are 0-4 while getting outscored 32-8 since interim manager Tony DeFrancesco replaced Brad Mills as leader of the stripped-down roster. Houston has won just seven of its last 50 overall.
"We got 11 hits and some of the guys got some big days, so there is some life," DeFrancesco said. "Unfortunately, once the game gets out of hand it's tough for our guys to continue to bounce back after they've been getting beat on for a while."
Ben Francisco had three hits for the Astros, who were swept for the third time this month and 12th overall.
Westbrook (13-9) won for the fourth time in five starts despite struggles with control two days after getting a new contract for next season with a mutual option for 2014.
Westbrook surrendered five runs on seven hits, two walks and two hit batters in five innings, ending a string of 13 consecutive starts of at least six innings.
Astros rookie lefty Dallas Keuchel (1-6) retired 11 of the first 12 batters, but six of his last seven reached base, one on an error. He earned his first career RBI on a sacrifice fly in the second, but was charged with five earned runs in four-plus innings.
"I felt good today, thought it was going to be another quality start," Keuchel said. "That fifth inning kind of unraveled things."
The Cardinals were 10 for 14 with runners in scoring position against five pitchers to sweep the Astros for the first time since April 2009 and wrap up a 6-3 homestand with a string of contenders awaiting.
St. Louis starts a 10-game trip Friday night with three games at NL Central-leading Cincinnati, followed by three at wild card-contending Pittsburgh and four at NL East-leading Washington.
"A very big road trip, there's no doubt about that," Matheny said. "We need to string them together, that's all there is to it."
Like Westbrook, the 24-year-old Keuchel entered with decent recent numbers with three consecutive quality starts. He's 0-6 in nine starts since beating the Indians with a six-hitter on June 23.
Freese's 16th homer capped a two-out rally in the fourth. The Astros elected to pitch to Freese instead of Daniel Descalso , just 3 for 21 during the homestand to that point and batting .226.
The first five Cardinals reached safely to start the fifth, including an error. Holliday had been just 5 for 36 with two RBIs on the homestand, put St. Louis ahead 7-5 with his double.
"I know I've been struggling but I don't really feel that far off," Holliday said. "I try to make it day by day and just try to have good at-bats."
NOTES: Jon Jay had two hits, his fourth consecutive multihit game. ... Craig has a 12-game hitting streak. He is batting .354 during his hitting streak with a homer, six doubles and six RBIs, raising his average to .313. ... Tyler Greene , traded from the Cardinals to Houston earlier this month, was 0 for 7 with five strikeouts in the series. Greene was a first-round pick in 2005 and became a fan target after numerous failures in St. Louis. ... ... Brett Wallace is 7 for 14 against Westbrook with four RBIs. ... Astros OF Justin Maxwell missed his second straight start with a bruised right index finger. ... Lance Lynn (13-5, 3.73 ERA) faces Mat Latos (10-3, 3.56) in the series opener against the Reds. ... The Astros open a three-game road series against the Mets, with Jordan Lyles (2-10, 5.70) set to start the opener against Jonathan Niese (10-6, 3.82). ... Cardinals pinch hitter Ryan Jackson singled for his first career hit in the fifth and scored.