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HOU@STL: Cards put up a five-spot in the fifth inning

ST. LOUIS -- If there was ever a risk of being lulled into overlooking a game, Thursday would have been that day.

The Cardinals were playing in front of a home crowd of only 30,343 fans (the smallest at Busch Stadium this season) and also had reason to look ahead toward the potential season-defining road trip up next.

Indeed, St. Louis looked listless early, too, falling into a four-run hole and showing little life on offense. But David Freese's fourth-inning swing turned on a switch, and what followed was one of the club's best offensive days of the season.

Beginning by exploiting a rookie pitcher's middle-inning struggles, the Cardinals changed the complexion of the game by scoring 13 of the game's final 14 runs to race away with a 13-5 victory. The team finished with 17 hits.

"When you have a chance to beat a team that's not playing very well, you have to do it," said Matt Holliday, whose four RBIs tie him for the National League lead (85) with fellow teammate Carlos Beltran and the Brewers' Ryan Braun. "If we want to make it to the playoffs, we are going to have to beat the teams like the Astros and the Cubs. We're going to have to beat them -- and not just two out of three, especially when we're at home. You have to sweep these kinds of series."

This series sweep over the Astros put a wrap on a string of nine consecutive home games. St. Louis won six of the contests and now heads on its 10-game road swing holding a one-game advantage over the Pirates for the second National League Wild Card spot.

On the docket next are series against three playoff contenders: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Washington.

"This is a good stretch to get hot," said Freese. "This is a tough road trip, and I think everyone understands that. To get to the playoffs, you have to beat tough teams. This is a good test. This is a statement either way, how this road trip turns out for all the teams involved."

About the only Cardinals player not riding momentum into the road trip would be Jake Westbrook, who, just days after signing a contract extension, never settled in.

He allowed at least one run in four of the five innings he pitched, and he was fortunate that manager Mike Matheny didn't yank him before he could qualify for a win.

"[I was] just really erratic and not in that rhythm I'm accustomed to lately," said Westbrook, who had a string of 13 straight six-inning starts snapped. "I can't really put a finger on it. It's a weird feeling. A lot of times early on when I'm not feeling it, I can capture it and get in that rhythm. But today, I just never found it."

Some tough luck got to Westbrook early, during which the Astros built a 3-0 lead through two. At its largest, Houston's advantage was four. The Astros hit four doubles, and each of those became runs.

Westbrook, whose starts are typically laced with ground-ball outs, allowed three sacrifice flies.

"I guess that's an indication," Westbrook said, "that I'm not very sharp."

It turns out he didn't need to be. The offense's pick-me-up began in the fourth, when Freese's three-run homer gave the Cardinals their first burst of life against rookie starter Dallas Keuchel, who had retired 11 of the game's first 12 batters.

A two-out walk by Carlos Beltran and a Yadier Molina double preceded Freese's 17th home run of the year. The homer also snapped a 69-inning homerless streak by St. Louis.

"I never should have walked Beltran," Keuchel said. "I wanted to challenge him with a fastball. I left it a little bit low. That kind of ticked me off a little bit."

Though Westbrook gave a run back in the fifth, St. Louis exploded for five more in the bottom half of the frame. Keuchel didn't make it through the inning.

After back-to-back singles, Jon Jay dropped down a bunt that was placed well enough to draw a high throw from first baseman Brett Wallace. That loaded the bases for Allen Craig, who extended his hitting streak to 12 games with a grounder-turned-infield single because no one on defense was quick enough to cover first.

Holliday, whose swing appeared to be on the verge of returning a day earlier, then delivered the big blow. His bases-clearing double staked the Cardinals to a two-run lead.

"That," as Matheny put it, "was the big hit we needed."

Molina capped the five-run frame by driving Holliday home with another hit.

Consecutive doubles in the sixth plated another run for St. Louis. The club then batted around the order in a four-run eighth to put the game out of reach.

The 13 runs scored were an August high for the Cardinals and fell one short of the season high -- set against the Astros on June 7.

"I'm definitely not pleased with the way I pitched," Westbrook said. "But [I'm] pleased with the way our offense picked me up and pleased with the win."

The Cardinals have climbed to 12 games above .500 for the first time this year.

"This team, it's hard to track the trends, because it's baffling at times when we see how good we can be and then just how dormant we go for a while," Matheny said. "We've all had conversations trying to figure it out, and the only thing I can still say is that typically history will say that a team with this kind of talent is due to go on a long run.

"That's what I'm counting on."

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