Cardinals cruise, cut magic number to 2

Cards cruise, cut magic number to 2

HOUSTON -- The Cardinals' offense erupted for a second successive night on Tuesday, supporting Joel Pineiro a night after backing Kyle Lohse. But the best news was that Pineiro didn't need the help.

After a brief slump earlier this month, Pineiro returned to form, pitching seven strong innings as the Cardinals throttled the Astros, 11-2, at Minute Maid Park. St. Louis maintained a 10-game lead over the Cubs in the National League Central and dropped its magic number for clinching the division to two. The Cardinals could thus secure their fourth division title in six years as early as Wednesday night.

Pineiro struck out four and walked two, allowing five hits, but the really revealing number was 12 groundouts against just five in the air. He needed a mere 87 pitches to get 21 outs, and 63 of those were strikes.

In short, it was the Pineiro that the Cardinals saw for the first five months of the season, rather than the one who had an ERA in the high 4.00s over his past four starts.

"I had a good sinker today," Pineiro said. "I trusted my sinker today a lot, like I've been doing all year, and I had a good one."

Pineiro's recent fade had led to questions as to whether he was wearing down. His innings total is higher than it's been since 2003, and it was at least fair to ask whether he was fatiguing. But Pineiro instead pointed to a small mechanical glitch, which he said he fixed in his previous start. He certainly looked fresh on Tuesday.

And it's needed, since Pineiro is almost certain to be the Cardinals' No. 3 starter in the postseason. He's one of a few Redbirds whose recent dips had caused worry in St. Louis, but the No. 3 starter seems to be one position to scratch off the concern list.

"He always throws a good game," Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada said. "He's moving the ball around. Like I always say, the best thing the Cardinals pitching has is they throw strikes. It doesn't matter how hard you hit it, they come back and throw strikes and never quit. I think that's why they're so good."

Pineiro was only in significant trouble one time, and he made a tremendous escape. After a double, a walk and a single to open the fourth, the Astros had the bases loaded with no outs. But Geoff Blum's sacrifice fly was the only headway Houston made the rest of the inning. Pineiro struck out Hunter Pence and got Jeff Keppinger to ground out, emerging with a 6-1 lead.

"A situation like that, with the lead, you've got to trade an out for a run," he said. "You go out there and hopefully make your pitches and get a ground ball or a strikeout or whatever you need, and I was able to do that."

Pineiro was credited with his 15th win, one shy of his career high, with two starts remaining in the season.

Meanwhile, Astros starter Yorman Bazardo breezed through the first two innings, but he got into trouble in the third. With two outs and a man on second, Skip Schumaker poked an RBI single to put the Cardinals ahead, 1-0. A walk and an Albert Pujols RBI single made it 2-0, and the third run came home when Pujols was caught running between first and second.

Four more hits produced three more runs in the fourth inning, and Bazardo was pulled before finishing the frame. The Redbirds kept adding on even after that, with Colby Rasmus and Yadier Molina going deep in the late innings to turn the game into a rout.

"We're just taking good at-bats," Molina said. "Everybody's taking good at-bats. That's what we need. To finish strong, thinking of the postseason, that's what we need to do. If we want to win, we have to do that."

The Cardinals have scored 18 runs in two games in Houston, after totaling 30 on their preceding nine-game homestand.

"We've got a good offense," manager Tony La Russa said. "A lot of talent up and down. I can tell partly because of the guys that you sit. We have guys that have an argument to play and they're not in the lineup. So that tells me we're deep and good."

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