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HOU@STL: Lohse fans five over seven scoreless innings

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals returned to Busch Stadium on Tuesday with a Wild Card lead and an upcoming schedule appropriately characterized as favorable.

And by taking advantage of the latter, the Cards padded the former.

St. Louis sent the Astros to their 100th loss of the season with a 4-1 victory to open a stretch of nine consecutive games against the National League Central's two bottom clubs. And because the Dodgers had their game postponed due to weather, the Cardinals' win improved their hold on the second NL Wild Card spot to 1 1/2 games. Fourteen games remain on the Cardinals' regular-season schedule.

"We can't take anything off," said starter Kyle Lohse, who constructed another gem of an outing. "I think we saw last year what can happen when you play every game as hard as you can. We have to concentrate on that day, and I felt like we did a good job of that today."

As inconsistent as this Cardinals' team has been in so many facets, Lohse continues to buck that trend.

It took four tries, but Lohse finally earned win No. 15, tying a career high he established in 2008, his first year with the Cardinals. Lohse, who has lost just once since June 15, held Houston scoreless over seven innings.

"Their pitcher did a great job against us today," said Astros interim manager Tony DeFrancesco. "His record and his ERA speaks for itself. We did battle and had chances throughout the whole game, but we never got that big hit."

The chances were slim against Lohse, who allowed only one runner to advance as far as third. The Astros finished with four hits and two walks against Lohse, who improved his winning percentage to a Major League-best .833.

"This year, he's healthy and doing his thing," catcher Yadier Molina said. "He's hitting his location, not missing over the plate too much and keeping the ball down. He's been pretty good for us."

He's been better than pretty good. He's been so good, many would agree, that his name deserves to be tossed around as a Cy Young Award candidate. Though he's one of 12 NL pitchers to win 15 games this season, Lohse has pitched well enough to conceivably have been closing in on the 20-win mark.

Nine times he has pitched at least six innings and allowed no more than two earned runs and yet -- because of a blown save or silent offense -- walked away with a no-decision.

"I can't control anything besides what I'm going to do when I go out there to start," said Lohse, who will be a free agent after the season. "If I'm worried about numbers, what could have been ... none of that matters to me."

In all, Lohse has limited opponents to two or fewer earned runs in 23 of his 31 starts. In five of those games, he has not been scored upon at all. His ERA, now down to 2.71, is only 0.04 points below NL-leader R.A. Dickey.

"He's a pitch maker," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "To be able to be as consistent as he's been is really a huge testament to the style of pitcher that he is right now. He's thriving on being that guy for us that has really set the bar for the rest of the starters. He's done that all season."

While Lohse stymied an Astros team that actually entered the night with a better September record than the Cardinals, St. Louis found a spark from the bottom of its lineup.

Daniel Descalso's two-out single in the second got the Cards on the board and ensured Molina's double earlier in the frame wouldn't be wasted. Descalso entered the night just 4-for-39 when hitting with a runner in scoring position and two outs.

"That's been something that's been frustrating for me all year," Descalso said. "But I can't think about that when I'm up there trying to have an at-bat with a man in scoring position."

Astros starter Fernando Abad got into further trouble in the fifth, his final inning on the mound.

Eight-hole hitter Pete Kozma hustled out a triple with one out, and Lohse took advantage of a charging third baseman by popping a double over the head of Matt Dominguez. Kozma's run put the Cardinals ahead, 2-0. Jon Jay delivered an RBI double to left-center to drive home another.

A two-out hit by Jay in the seventh then scored Descalso, who opened the inning with a walk.

"Those guys came through," Matheny said. "We have to have somebody do it each night. These at-bats just couldn't be any more important."

Upon Lohse's exit, that lead was entrusted to a bullpen that had tossed six scoreless innings in the team's previous game. Things wouldn't go as smoothly this time.

Mitchell Boggs, whose status was questionable due to recent lower back tightness, was cleared to return to the mound but struggled when he did. Boggs threw 25 pitches in an eighth inning he couldn't finish. He allowed one run on three hits.

Lefty Marc Rzepczynski entered and closed the frame by retiring Jed Lowrie, who represented the potential tying run. Jason Motte followed and picked up his 36th save. Only two NL closers (Craig Kimbrel and Joel Hanrahan) have more.

The Cardinals improved to 7-3 against the Astros, who St. Louis plays five more times over the next eight days.

"I don't think we can really look ahead too far," Descalso said. "I know there's not too many games left, but we can't really get ahead of ourselves. We have to play one game at a time. I know it sounds cliché, but right now our focus is tomorrow."

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