Mulder outdueled in Game 2

Mulder outdueled in Game 2

ST. LOUIS -- Scoring first, it turns out, works well for the other guys, too. So does taking advantage when the opponent makes a mistake. Brilliant starting pitching? That's another one that cuts both ways.

All the things the Cardinals had been doing to other teams -- taking an early lead, getting runners over and in, snuffing out rallies by inducing ground balls -- the Astros did to them on Thursday night. The one thing St. Louis hadn't been doing to itself -- committing defensive miscues -- the Redbirds did repeatedly.

The predictable result was a 4-1 loss to the Astros at Busch Stadium, leaving the National League Championship Series tied at one game each. Mark Mulder pitched a game that would have yielded a win most nights, but his teammates played their least inspiring game of the postseason, offensively and defensively, in support of him. Houston, meanwhile, played the brand of baseball that the Cards had seemingly trademarked over the last week or so.

That wasn't the only bad news for the Cardinals, who had won nine straight NL playoff games (Division Series and NLCS) at home. Reggie Sanders left the game in the eighth inning with a strained lower back after landing awkwardly on an attempt to catch Adam Everett's triple.

Mulder struggled with his command in the early innings before getting sharp, and was charged with the loss despite pitching a fine game overall. St. Louis struggled to convert on offensive chances, going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and stranding eight men. Twice Jim Edmonds was retired to end an inning with two men on, leaving Albert Pujols waiting in the on-deck circle.

"We know that we were right there," said David Eckstein. "These games are going to be like that the whole time. That's the thing. A play here, a play there is going to be the difference."

Roy Oswalt stifled the Cards over seven innings, allowing a run on five hits. He got a huge out when Edmonds struck out looking to end the fifth. In the seventh, Eckstein flied out and Edmonds grounded out after St. Louis put two men on with one out.

"The combination between [Oswalt] and Brad Ausmus behind the plate, it's a tough combination," Edmonds said. "Brad knows what he's doing, moving the ball back and forth, fastballs away and cutters. [Oswalt] was just moving the ball around and making good pitches. It's one thing to move the ball around, but it's another thing to execute the pitches, and he was doing that tonight."

Instant hero Chris Burke reprised his role as the newest "Killer B" with a pair of big hits. Burke dropped a triple into right-center field with one out in the second, and came home to score on a passed ball by Yadier Molina. In the eighth, he lined a two-out RBI single and scored on Everett's three-bagger.

It appeared that Mark Grudzielanek's relay throw beat Burke to the bag on the rookie's triple, but Abraham Nunez didn't sweep a tag and Burke simply slid past Nunez's glove and into third.

"The main thing is to catch the ball," Nunez said. "You don't want the ball to go by right there, because then he would score easily. It's one hop and you're trying to be sure you catch the ball, and then try to tag him. You can't do both at the same time."

Mulder retired Everett on a comebacker and was one out away from escaping the inning when the ball got away from Molina to give Houston the lead.

"I didn't see it all the way," said Molina. "I made a mistake. I was trying to throw before I caught it."

Houston increased its advantage in the fifth after Ausmus stroked a leadoff double. Oswalt put down the sacrifice to get Ausmus to third, and Craig Biggio's groundout with the St. Louis infield playing back brought Ausmus home.

It was just the kind of inning the Cardinals had been putting together -- when they weren't hitting home runs, that is.

"They're that kind of club," Grudzielanek said. "Biggio putting the ball in play to get that extra run, it's just one of those things. That's the kind of team they are. When you get opportunities like that, you've got to take advantage of them. They did that tonight, and with Oswalt on the mound, that's all they needed."

Pujols crushed the ninth homer of his young postseason career in the sixth to make it a one-run game, but the blast would have been much more welcome an inning earlier when the Cardinals had baserunners. Edmonds struck out looking with two men on to end the fifth, depriving Pujols of a chance to drive in more runs.

Another chance came in the seventh, thanks to Molina's second double of the game. Pinch-hitter John Rodriguez walked, but Eckstein flied out to center and Edmonds grounded to first base on the first pitch.

"When you have runners in scoring position and you don't drive them in, that's not executing," said Eckstein. "Not getting on base is not executing. It comes down to that. I know I had a big-time chance in the seventh to be able to drive in a run, and I didn't come through. We were right there and we just needed that hit."

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