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Cardinals escape a late-game jam, slip past Astros
HOUSTON -- Every move the Cardinals make is pushing the Houston Astros farther out of the NL Central race.
Woody Williams showed no ill effects from a strained muscle in his left side, pitching seven scoreless innings for his third straight victory as St. Louis extended its NL Central lead with a 2-1 victory over Houston on Saturday.
The Cardinals still had to survive a tense bases-loaded ninth inning before they won for the 10th time in 11 games to take a 7 1/2-game lead over the second-place Astros.
The Cardinals out of the ninth inning after Jason Isringhausen intentionally walked pinch-hitter Orlando Merced to load the bases with two outs. Pinch-hitter Gregg Zaun then fouled out to catcher Mike Matheny to end the game.
"It's not my favorite thing to do to walk the bases loaded," manager Tony La Russa said. "Zaun has done a good job for them but Merced had been really good in that situation."
Williams (9-4), making his fourth start since coming off the disabled list Aug. 29, held the Astros to five hits. The Cardinals weren't sure how far Williams could go because of the injury but he ended up pitching seven innings.
"I felt good out there for the first time in a long time," Williams said. "When I started warming up I didn't feel any tightness at all. I definitely had more in the tank. We're in a good position but this is by no means over."
The Cardinals lead the season series with Houston 11-4. Eight of those games have been decided by one run and the Cardinals have won six of those.
"It seems like every time we play the Cardinals it's a close game and we lose by one run ," Houston's Jeff Bagwell said. "That's frustrating. We didn't play bad baseball. We made all the plays, all the pitches. They just played better."
Williams allowed only one runner to reach second base, when Daryle Ward and Mark Loretta hit consecutive singles with two outs in the fourth inning. Jose Vizcaino grounded out to end the inning. Williams struck out two and didn't walk a batter.
Isringhausen pitched the ninth for his 31st save in 35 chances. Houston scored on shortstop Edgar Renteria's throwing error on Jose Vizcaino's infield single.
"I won't feel good until we clinch," Renteria said. "But we feel real good about the way we are playing."
Pete Munro (5-4) held the Cardinals to three hits over the first five innings and allowed only one runner to reach second base before Jim Edmonds hit an RBI double off the center-field hill for a 1-0 lead.
"We played our hearts out today and came up short," Ward said. "You've got to tip your hats to them. They're just doing a better job than we are. I'm not saying they're a better team. They're just playing better and scoring runs."
Fernando Vina led off the inning with a grounder that bounced through the grasp of third baseman Mark Loretta for an error. Vina was sacrificed to second by J.D. Drew before Edmonds broke the scoreless tie with his two-out hit.
The Cardinals got their second run in the eighth when Mike Matheny singled advanced to third on a pair of sacrifices and scored on a wild pitch by Jeriome Robertson.
Edgar Renteria's 10th inning RBI single gave St. Louis a 3-2 victory on Friday. In the series opener on Thursday, Vizcaino's three-run homer in the eighth inning gave the Astros a 6-3 victory.
The Cardinals are 11-5 in Williams' 16 starts this season. ... Albert Pujols extended his hitting streak to nine games for St. Louis with an infield hit down the third-base line in the second inning that rolled to a stop just inside the line with Munro encouraging it to roll foul. ... Wade Miller will place his 10-game winning streak on the line Sunday for the Astros. It is the longest current winning streak in the NL and second longest in the majors this season.