HOUSTON -- If nothing else, the Astros have proven to be a scrappy bunch. They refused to fold after falling behind by six runs Wednesday night and had their best hitter at the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning and a chance to pull out an improbable win.
With the crowd on its feet and the tying run standing near second base, slugger Hunter Pence battled relief pitcher Eduardo Sanchez for seven pitches before swinging through a 2-2 curveball for a game-ending strikeout that sealed the Cardinals' 6-5 win over the Astros at Minute Maid Park.
"The guys really gave me a golden opportunity, a great opportunity to get a big hit and I wasn't able finish it off for them and pick it up," Pence said. "He got me, and I've got to find a way to become better for it."
The fact the Astros had put themselves in position to pull out a win was hugely surprising considering how lifeless their offense seemed against St. Louis starter Kyle Lohse (4-1), who threw seven scoreless innings. When the Astros finally got to the Cardinals' struggling bullpen, the game changed.
"It seemed to be a little bit of a tonic for the Astros hitters," Cardinals right fielder Lance Berkman said.
The Astros kept the game in reach by turning five double plays, which was their most in a game in nearly eight years. And trailing 6-0 in the eighth, they rallied for three runs on a fielder's choice by Angel Sanchez and RBI singles by Pence and Brett Wallace, who extended his hitting streak to seven games by going 3-for-4.
"We all believe that we're going to pull together and do the things we need to do to get a win," Wallace said. "That might be someone hitting a homer, it might be single, single, single and someone will move someone over. We believe we can do it, and we've shown time after time we can put rallies together and put up runs."
Joe Inglett, who made a rare start at second base and went 2-for-4, sparked the Astros in the ninth with a one-out single and later scored on a triple to left-center by Jason Bourgeois (2-for-2) to cut the lead to 6-4. Bourgeois scored on Michael Bourn's sacrifice fly to get the Astros within a run.
"Everybody's believing at that point," Bourgeois said.
Down to the final out, Sanchez shot a fly ball to right field that sailed over the head of Berkman and bounced off the wall for a double. Suddenly, the Astros had the tying run at second base with Pence on his way to the plate.
"It went straight back over my head," Berkman said. "I couldn't get deep enough. I was playing in, in. We were guarding against the flare hit. [Otherwise] it would have been a routine catch."
Pence fouled off a pair of pitches at 2-2 before striking out to end the game.
"It was sure nice to see the guys be battling back and know it can happen," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "We've seen that more than once, and especially in the last two weeks. We've seen these guys battle back, and tonight was no exception. It was an absolutely outstanding effort all the way around."
Astros starter J.A. Happ (1-4) was the tough-luck losing pitcher. He threw 101 pitches in five innings, giving up just five hits and two runs -- a home run to Matt Holliday in the fourth that landed in the Crawford Boxes and a homer to Tyler Greene in the fifth that made it 2-0.
"I made a mistake, obviously, with the second home run, and it was the worst pitch of the day, and I paid for it," Happ said. "The first one, he pushed it into the boxes. He's a strong guy. Other than that, I felt pretty good."
The Cardinals scored four times in the seventh -- three off Enerio Del Rosario and one off Jose Valdez -- to take a 6-0 lead, sending nine batters to the plate. With no runs across and a runner at second and two outs in the inning, five consecutive batters reached for the Cardinals on four singles and a hit by pitch.
Albert Pujols and Holliday had RBI singles on ground balls to left field, and Berkman had a broken-bat single to right to drive in Pujols with what turned out to be the winning run.
"In the seventh, when Jose came into the game, they had two ground-ball singles that happened to go through for RBIs and a broken-bat single to right," Mills said. "There were some things they were able to do to break it out, but at the same time our guys were making some pretty good pitches, too."
Still, the Astros somehow wriggled their way back within striking distance and had convinced themselves they were about to cap what would have been the biggest comeback of the year. Perhaps they learned a thing or two along the way.
"You have to look at the big picture, but I thought the team battled back," Wallace said. "Obviously, we want to win every game we can and had an opportunity there, but we're growing every time we do that, and we'll learn things every time and hopefully start putting wins together."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.