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Cards come back, but fall late

Cards come back, but fall late

HOUSTON -- The Cardinals' first 2008 foray into hostile territory provided a valuable reminder on Monday night: Every mistake can be costly.

Todd Wellemeyer threw 85 of the best pitches of his life, mixing in only two duds, and left the game with a deficit. Kyle McClellan missed with two fastballs, and it added up to the first loss of his Major League career. Despite a game where on balance they played and pitched beautifully, the Cardinals lost to the Astros, 5-3, at Minute Maid Park.

St. Louis rallied for three runs against Houston closer Jose Valverde in the ninth inning, then watched as the hard work went for naught in the Astros' home opener. Superb outings by Wellemeyer and Wandy Rodriguez both went without decisions in what turned into a bullpen game.

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Miguel Tejada's two-run homer off the rookie McClellan ended the game and sent a sellout crowd of 43,483 home happy, ending a memorable battle between the two rivals. Carlos Lee singled off McClellan to open the ninth, and Tejada followed with the game-winner.

"It was two outstanding starting pitchers, and their guy was a little bit better in one inning," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "Then a great comeback at the end. It's a tough loss, but an exciting game to be a part of. Give them credit. They end up with the last hero."

Wellemeyer was untouchable for nearly his entire outing, allowing two hits, one walk and only two balls to reach the outfield through the first six innings. He even fended off the irritation of a nosebleed that struck him in the first inning.

But on Wellemeyer's third pitch of the seventh, he hung a changeup to Lance Berkman, and the slugger punished him with a solo home run. Three pitches later, Lee made it back-to-back on a mislocated slider.

"I did what I was trying to do -- go out there and stay ahead of the guys, minus the bloody nose," Wellemeyer said. "That's what I did for six innings. Then I made two mistakes."

The right-hander escaped the seventh without another run, but he was removed for a pinch-hitter in the eighth. His seven frames were a career high, and his seven strikeouts equaled a personal best. He had never before struck out seven in a game he started.

Even in defeat, it was the seventh excellent showing by a Cardinals starter in as many games. No St. Louis starting pitcher has allowed more than two runs in a start this year. And the defense was at least the equal of the pitching.

Troy Glaus started an exceptional 5-6-3 double play on a sacrifice bunt attempt in the fourth inning, and one batter later, Aaron Miles made a spectacular diving stop on Michael Bourn. Cesar Izturis displayed tremendous range tracking down a Geoff Blum flyball in left field in the fifth.

However, while Wellemeyer was dealing and the defense was sizzling, Rodriguez held the Redbirds down with an inspired showing of his own. Rodriguez limited the Cardinals to three hits and no walks over 7 1/3 innings, and did not allow a baserunner with fewer than two outs until his last inning.

"He just made good pitches," said Ryan Ludwick. "His curveball was down. He located his fastball effectively. He threw the ball well all night."

The Cardinals hadn't seriously threatened all night when the Astros called on their closer, but Valverde couldn't put the game away. Miles singled and Izturis walked to open the ninth. Valverde struck out Rick Ankiel and got Albert Pujols to fly out, but Glaus singled in a run and Ludwick launched a two-run double to tie the game.

La Russa summoned McClellan, but the rookie simply couldn't locate well. He left a fastball over the plate to Lee, and on his first pitch to Tejada, he missed up and over the plate with another sinker.

"It was a fastball away," McClellan said. "I was thinking, 'Try to get a double play.' I was going to let it start outside, throw a sinker, but it just came back too far over the middle. And it was up a little bit."

The Cardinals saw a five-game winning streak come to an end. They fell to 5-2 on the season, a half-game behind idle Milwaukee in the National League Central.

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

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