(Sports Network) - If the St. Louis Cardinals come up short in their quest to capture this year's National League Central title, the team can point to its performance against the non-contending Houston Astros as a reason for that failure.
The Astros have been an awfully tough opponent as of late, however, and the resurgent club will be aiming for an eighth straight victory and sweep of this three-game series when it takes on the Cardinals once again tonight at Busch Stadium.
Houston has surprisingly thrived since shipping away former All-Stars Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman in the days prior to last Saturday's trade deadline. The Astros haven't lost since making those deals, and the offense showed it hasn't suffered in Berkman's absence by battering St. Louis pitching in an 18-4 rout last night.
The Astros racked up 22 hits as a team and fell just one run shy of matching a franchise single-game record in that category. Shortstop Angel Sanchez established personal bests with four hits and six RBI, while Chris Johnson finished 2-for-3 and knocked in three runs on the evening.
Carlos Lee and Pedro Feliz each collected three hits for Houston, which will be seeking its first eight-game win streak since August 27-September 3, 2008.
The scoring barrage made a winner out of starting pitcher Bud Norris (4-7), who worked the first six innings and allowed four runs while striking out six.
Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia (9-5) had a worse night than his counterpart, as the rookie was rocked for eight runs (four earned) and 10 hits before being lifted with none out in the top of the sixth. Five of those runs came during a big second inning in which the Astros sent nine men to the plate.
"It was a rough one, definitely a bad outing," said Garcia. "It was a tough second inning. After that inning, I tried to do the best I could to stay in the game and go as deep as I could."
St. Louis did receive solo homers from Colby Rasmus and Matt Holliday in Monday's forgettable defeat, with Rasmus ending 3-for-5 with two runs scored.
The Cardinals, who came into last night's clash off a three-game home sweep of Pittsburgh, remained a half-game behind front-running Cincinnati in the NL Central standings. The team has now lost seven of 11 meetings with the fourth- place Astros this season, and Houston has prevailed in its last six matchups with St. Louis held in Busch Stadium.
St. Louis will attempt to rebound tonight behind co-staff ace Chris Carpenter, who's been sensational for the defending division champions since the All-Star break. The 2005 NL Cy Young Award recipient has yielded a mere five runs in four starts to begin the second half, while lasting eight innings in three of those assignments.
Carpenter began his post-break tear with back-to-back victories over the Dodgers and Phillies, but has been left with no-decisions in his past two outings despite pitching well both times. The veteran righty fired eight shutout frames against Pittsburgh this past Friday in a game that remained scoreless into the 10th inning, five days after allowing three runs in a seven-inning stint at Chicago's Wrigley Field.
The 35-year-old enters tonight's clash sporting an excellent 11-3 overall record, which includes an 8-2 mark at Busch Stadium, but was dealt a home loss by the Astros back on May 13 after being reached for four runs over eight innings. That stopped a streak of 13 consecutive winning decisions for Carpenter against NL West teams that dated back to the beginning of the 2009 season.
In 15 career meetings with Houston, Carpenter has gone 6-4 with a 2.77 earned run average and tossed five complete games.
The Astros counter with recent acquisition J.A. Happ, who did quite a job replacing longtime franchise ace Oswalt in his Houston debut. Against Milwaukee on Friday, the steady left-hander surrendered only two hits and struck out a season-best six batters over six shutout innings in leading his new team to a 5-0 victory.
Happ, the runner up for the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year Award, came over from Philadelphia along with a pair of minor leaguers in last Thursday's trade of Oswalt. The Astros also obtained current first baseman Brett Wallace as an offshoot of that deal, with the team flipping outfield prospect Anthony Gose to Toronto for his services.
The 27-year-old Happ burst onto the scene by amassing a 12-4 record and a 2.93 ERA in 35 appearances (23 starts) for last season's NL champion Phillies, but has been held to only four starts at the major league level this year due to a forearm strain. He's been very good when healthy, having permitted just four runs -- three earned -- over 21 1/3 innings while posting two wins and a pair of no-decisions.
Happ is 0-1 with a 5.11 ERA in two previous starts against the Cardinals and will be pitching at Busch Stadium for the first time tonight.