Happ's shutout tells Cards a 'different story'
Lefty avenges worst start of career as Wallace goes 3-for-3
HOUSTON -- It was somewhere in the back of J.A. Happ's head, swirling around like bad experiences tend to do. That nightmarish outing against the Cardinals in early August wouldn't go away, even though Happ had piled up four quality starts since.
Nothing was going to ease his mind until he got another chance to show the Cardinals -- and, more importantly, himself -- his unforgettable one-inning outing in St. Louis four weeks ago was an aberration.
Happ put his mind to ease and sent the crowd at Minute Maid Park home early by throwing a masterful two-hit shutout, facing one over the minimum 27 batters, to beat the reeling Cardinals, 3-0, in a game that lasted only two hours Monday night.
"They're rare, but I'd like to make them more common," said Happ, who threw his third career shutout and first since Aug. 5, 2009, against Colorado, while he was with the Phillies. "This one felt good, for sure."
The Astros won for the seventh time in their past nine games and evened their home record at 33-33, marking the first time this season they've been .500 at home. The Cardinals, meanwhile, lost for the eighth time in 11 games to fall six games behind the first-place Reds in the National League Central.
"Obviously, he threw really well," Cardinals shortstop Brendan Ryan said. "It's really frustrating. We hit some balls hard. We couldn't find holes, and he's still making pitches, finding the strike zone. It didn't make it any easier. Just a really tough game."
Rookie first baseman Brett Wallace, a former Cardinals first-round Draft pick, went 3-for-3 with a double and an RBI. Hunter Pence had two hits and scored a run, and Carlos Lee drove in his team-leading 77th run with a bloop double.
"He's always pounding the zone, but today his tempo was up, and the biggest thing is when you're playing defense that's what you want," Wallace said. "You want a guy pounding the zone, you want him to be working quick, and he was doing that. When he's pitching like that, he's one of the most fun guys to play behind."
Happ, who improved to 4-0 with a 0.84 ERA in five starts at Minute Maid Park this year, gave up a one-out single in the first to Randy Winn and a one-out double in the eighth to Yadier Molina, but they were both erased on double plays. He walked Colby Rasmus to lead off the third, but he was stranded at second base -- the only Cardinals runner to reach scoring position.
"Saying he pitched outstanding is probably an understatement," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "He was able to mix his pitches and had command of all of his pitches. He was around the zone all the time, and he allowed one guy into scoring position. It just goes to show how well he was throwing the ball. After his last outing against these guys, he wanted to come back and have a good game. He was almost even better than that."
In his second start with the Astros after he was traded from the Phillies in the Roy Oswalt deal, Happ was roughed up at Busch Stadium on Aug. 4. He gave up six hits and seven runs and walked three in one inning in the shortest start of his career.
"I kind of saw looking ahead after that game that I was going to get another chance, and you always want to prove to that team that wasn't you out there," Happ said. "This was a different story. I was able to throw strikes and get ahead in the count, and that's the biggest thing. I didn't walk many guys tonight and let my defense to the work."
The Astros turned a 5-4-3 double play to end the first and wrapped up the eighth when Wallace snagged Colby Rasmus' liner and stepped on first base to double up Molina. Second baseman Angel Sanchez also made a pair of nice defensive plays, including a long running catch in the ninth to track down an Aaron Miles pop fly.
"I thought for sure that was a base hit. ... But Sanchez made a great play," Happ said.
Houston rallied with two outs in the first against Jake Westbrook (1-3). Pence singled to right and scored from first base on a bloop double by Lee. The ball hit the foul line in right field and took a nearly 90-degree turn and into foul territory. Pence rounded the bases and slid home ahead of the throw to put the Astros ahead, 1-0.
The Astros stretched the lead to 3-0 in the seventh. Chris Johnson began the inning with a single and scored on a long double to left-center field off the bat of Wallace, who just missed getting his first career homer.
"With this park, the way it goes out like that, you never know," Wallace said. "I was excited to get a big hit for us, and I knew I probably got it over his head. It's just exciting to contribute offensively for once."
Wallace wound up scoring from third when Jason Castro hit into a double play, giving Happ an insurance run he certainly didn't need on this night. The burly first baseman said being out of the starting lineup for the final two games of the Mets series last weekend aided his cause.
"I think it helped a lot, just taking those days and kind of relaxing and kind of starting over mentally," he said. "I think the biggest thing is [to] be aggressive, but also understand the game and get pitches to hit. Sometimes you can learn a lot by watching and seeing the other guys go about their business, and I think that helped me a lot."
The game was the fourth-shortest in Minute Maid Park history. The last time the Astros played a shorter game was on June 12, 2005, against Toronto, a game that was played in a ballpark record 1:50.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.