Cards lose lead, series against Astros

HOUSTON (AP) — Even their opponents are surprised by the St. Louis Cardinals’ slide.

Hunter Pence hit a three-run homer and the Houston Astros completed a sweep of St. Louis with a 5-2 victory Wednesday, handing the slumping Cardinals their fifth straight defeat.

“Their backs are against the wall, not ours, and it didn’t look like they wanted to come out and beat us,” Blum said. “It’s really surprising. For whatever reason, we got to them at their weakest point.

“I don’t know if they were just laid back because they were coming in to play us.”

The fading Cardinals, who have lost 13 of 16, began the day seven games behind first-place Cincinnati in the NL Central. The Reds were scheduled to host Milwaukee later.

“I’m not all that excited on the reception we’re going to get when we get home,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “I know we deserve to get it. But we’ll tough it out. This is a tough group. We’ll just show them we’re a better ballclub than what we just played on this road trip. That’s our assignment.”

Nelson Figueroa (4-2) pitched out of two bases-loaded jams and lasted five innings for the win. Brandon Lyon worked a perfect ninth for his 11 save in 12 chances, sealing Houston’s 14th victory in 20 games.

“It’s been exciting,” Figueroa said. “We play exciting baseball and we’re always putting the pressure on the other team and it’s only going to make us better going down the stretch and looking forward to next year.”

Shut out 3-0 the previous two nights, St. Louis snapped an 18-inning scoreless streak on Matt Holliday’s 24th homer in the first for a 2-0 lead.

Jeff Suppan (1-7) was activated from the disabled list before the game and allowed only one hit until the Astros rallied in the fifth.

Brett Wallace drew a leadoff walk and went to third on Jason Castro’s double. Pinch-hitter Brian Bogusevic hit a grounder to first baseman Albert Pujols, who threw out Wallace at the plate. Michael Bourn hit a sacrifice fly and Jeff Keppinger walked before Pence’s go-ahead homer.

“It wasn’t about pitch selection,” Suppan said. “It was mostly about pitch location. If there’s a leadoff walk, I need to throw strikes. We’re just grinding. Today’s over with, now we’re getting ready for our next series.”

Bourn singled in the seventh to extend his hitting streak to 11 games. He scored on Carlos Lee’s sacrifice fly.

Figueroa escaped a jam in the third, when Suppan led off with a walk and Skip Schumaker singled. Aaron Miles and Pujols flied out and Figueroa hit Holliday with a pitch to load the bases before Jon Jay grounded into a force play.

St. Louis loaded the bases again in the fifth on singles by Miles and Jay and an intentional walk to Holliday with two outs. Ex-Astro Pedro Feliz flied out to end the threat.

Figueroa allowed two runs and six hits. Five relievers combined to hold the Cardinals to one hit over the final four innings.

“Just go up and do your part and when the pitching gives up two runs a game or less, you are going to win a lot,” Pence said. “That’s the bottom line. You’ve got to give them credit.”

Schumaker doubled to start the game but was thrown out on the bases when Miles hit a comebacker to Figueroa. Pujols, hitless in his last 13 at-bats, fouled out before Holliday’s homer.

The Cardinals have scored two runs in their last 36 innings. The consecutive shutouts the previous two nights marked the first time in 94 years that St. Louis had been blanked with three hits or fewer in back-to-back games.

Suppan made his first start since Aug. 1, when he pitched 5 1-3 scoreless innings against the Phillies. He went five innings and allowed four runs, three hits and four walks.

“You’ve got to play nine innings,” La Russa said. “You score first, you have a pretty good chance to win, but that’s the last time we scored. We’ve had that formula a couple of times on this trip. It doesn’t work. We stunk today and stunk the whole trip.”

Notes: The Cardinals called up outfielder Nick Stavinoha and catcher Matt Pagnozzi from Triple-A Memphis. They also activated left-hander Dennys Reyes from the disabled list. Keppinger (toe injury) came off the disabled list before the game. … Lee is among the major league leaders with 30 RBIs since July 28.

Updated September 1, 2010