MLB Insiders - Good Grief

The good news for the Cardinals is that their road schedule is over. They finished 34-47 on the road, losing nine of their last 10 and 10 of their last 12 games away from home. The better news is that they are 19 games over .500 at home, where they will play their last seven games -- and a possible eighth as a makeup against San Francisco.

Entering a four-game series at Houston, the Cardinals' magic number for clinching their third consecutive National League Central title was five. As they left Minute Maid Park Sunday night, it was still five after the Astros concluded a four-game sweep with a 7-3 victory.

"We're in a good position -- we're going home," manager Tony La Russa said.

But the bad news is that for the upcoming three-game series with San Diego, the club probably will be without David Eckstein. The shortstop, who just got back in the lineup Friday after being out five weeks with a strained left oblique muscle, had six hits in his first two games back, but he suffered a left hamstring strain Sunday and came out of the game after three at-bats.

Aaron Miles, who did a good job as Eckstein's backup for much of August and September, will go back to shortstop. Miles had started at second base on Sunday.

The Cardinals bullpen, which had a terrible time on a trip in which the team lost six of seven games, continued its spotty work Sunday. With the score tied 3-3 in the sixth, right-hander Josh Hancock allowed a double and a bunt single to the only two hitters he faced. The Cardinals then didn't get the call at second on an attempted tag by second baseman Ronnie Belliard that would have resulted in an inning-ending double play and no Houston runs.

Lefty Randy Flores then walked Luke Scott, a left-handed hitter, and Aubrey Huff, another left-handed hitter, socked a three-run homer.

REPLAY: The Cardinals touched Houston right-hander Roger Clemens for three hits and a first-inning run, but Clemens worked four scoreless innings after that before coming out of the game.

The Astros lost a 3-1 lead, but Cardinals left-hander Randy Flores served up a three-run homer to Aubrey Huff to cap a four-run sixth inning as the Astros polished off a four-game sweep with a 7-3 win.

--Rookie RHP Anthony Reyes, passed over for RHP Jason Marquis for Saturday's start in Houston, is expected to start Wednesday at home against San Diego. RHP Jeff Suppan and RHP Chris Carpenter will pitch the first two games of the San Diego series.

--The Cardinals can't clinch the Central Division title before Wednesday now. They finish the season at home with three games against San Diego and four against Milwaukee.

--Houston's four-game sweep over the Cardinals marked the first time St. Louis had been swept in a four-game series by the Astros in the 45 seasons the clubs have been playing.

--RHP Jeff Weaver, though he gave up just three runs in six innings, again had trouble with left-handed hitters. Entering the game, Weaver was being cuffed at a .370 pace by left-handers. Houston left-handed batters were 3-for-8 (.375) against Weaver on Sunday.

--The Cardinals will have to sweep this weekend's four-game series against Milwaukee to have a winning record in the division. They are 37-40 inside the NL Central.

BY THE NUMBERS: 11 -- Number of consecutive one-run losses the Cardinals have suffered on the road through Sept. 23.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "At some point, enough's enough. He did everything he could. It was just not working out. You could see it in his face. You could see it in his stuff and his delivery. I'm glad it's come to a conclusion. Let's get it right. It's hard enough to play this game healthy, let alone with one hip." -- RHP Chris Carpenter, talking about RHP Jason Isringhausen's decision to have hip surgery that ended his season.

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