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08/01/09 12:38 AM ET

Astros 'pen falters late in loss to Cards

Arias coughs up two run in decisive eighth inning

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals certainly have taken the look of a different team since their previous meeting with the Astros, who swept St. Louis in three games at Minute Maid Park last week. And that's mostly because of the addition of left fielder Matt Holliday.

Holliday, acquired a week earlier in a trade with the Oakland A's, went 4-for-4 with two RBIs to lead the Cardinals past the reeling Astros, 4-3, in the series opener Friday night at Busch Stadium. Houston has lost six of seven games to fall back under .500.

The loss dropped the Astros 4 1/2 games behind the first-place Cardinals in the National League Central, and St. Louis will send the formidable 1-2 punch of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright to the mound in the final two games of the series.

"We have our work cut out for us the next two days with Carpenter and Wainwright," said Astros starter Brian Moehler, who didn't get a decision after holding St. Louis to seven hits and two runs while striking out five in 6 2/3 innings.

Houston took a one-run lead on Matt Kata's pinch-hit single in the eighth, but the Cardinals scored twice in the bottom of the inning against reliever Alberto Arias to take the lead, 4-3.

Astros manager Cecil Cooper believes his team let the Cardinals off the hook after Houston stranded 11 runners on base, leaving the bases loaded in the fourth and fifth innings. The Astros were 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position and 3-for-17 with runners on base.

"We had a lot of opportunities early in the game and didn't cash them in," Cooper said. "Those things usually come back to haunt you, and tonight they definitely did. We had the bases loaded a couple of times, we had a guy at third base with two outs a couple of times. We cashed two of them, but we just left too many guys on. That's kind of been the story for the most part."

Arias (2-1), who was moved into the setup role when LaTroy Hawkins went on the disabled list earlier this week, was called upon to protect a 3-2 lead. He struck out Julio Lugo before hitting Albert Pujols square in the back with his next pitch.

Holliday ripped an RBI double down the right-field line to tie the game, and Rick Ankiel singled to left two batters late to score Holliday from third with the go-ahead run. Ryan Franklin gave up a leadoff single in the ninth before nailing down his 24th save.

"I'm sure he was trying to come inside on Pujols and hit him, and things kind of broke loose form there," Cooper said. "It looked like the pitch to Holliday was something over the middle of the plate, a breaking ball or something. He's one of those guys who can hit almost anything."

Holliday went 3-for-3 against Moehler with singles in the second, fourth and sixth innings. "He's a good hitter," Moehler said. "There's no doubt he's swinging the bat really well right now. They've got a good lineup. There's really not a break in that lineup. You have to limit the leadoff guy and the second guy from getting on and hopefully make your pitches to the big three they've got in the middle."

Miguel Tejada drove in Michael Bourn with a single in the first and put the Astros ahead, 2-1, in the fifth with an RBI grounder. The Astros left the bases loaded in the fourth when Moehler flied out, but the one that really hurt came in the fifth when Ivan Rodriguez struck out swinging to strand the bases full.

Rodriguez snapped an 0-for-18 slump with a hit in his next at-bat, but he struck out in three at-bats against Cardinals starter Mitchell Boggs.

"I was up in a situation with the bases loaded and I struck out on balls out of the strike zone, and that happens," Rodriguez said. "Hitting is not an easy thing to do, but we are trying the best we can. In that situation, sometimes you have to give the credit to the pitcher. He threw pretty well. We had never seen him before and his angle was kind of different than normal. He throws across and the ball comes from right to left, but it was a tough day."

Moehler, who's 5-0 in his career against St. Louis, breezed through the first three innings on only 23 pitches, giving the Astros' overworked bullpen some needed rest. Lugo tripled and scored on Holliday's RBI single in the fourth, and Mark DeRosa hit a game-tying homer in the seventh.

"It was supposed to be a cutter away, and I got it right up to my release point and it squirted out of my hand," Moehler said. "When I let go of it, I thought I was going to throw it halfway up the backstop, but it just spun right into his bat. We had him set up away, and if I made the pitch away I think I would have got him."

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa heaped praise on Moehler.

"He just makes a lot of quality pitches," he said. "Doesn't throw anything over the middle of the plate. Sometimes you get a little aggressive on him, and he just keeps moving it out a little farther. He just throws a lot of quality pitches. Big league pitcher. I take my hat off to him."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.