April 7 – Astros 5, Cardinals 1

Houston ace Roy Oswalt dominated the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday, powering the Astros to their first 2007 win. Anthony Reyes took the loss in his regular season debut.

The St. Louis Cardinals are used to domination in recent years (three straight playoff appearances, one World Series championship), but for the most part the 'Birds have not been on the receiving end of the dominating. On Saturday night, the Houston Astros dominated the St. Louis Cardinals in every statistical category as the 'Stros starting pitcher Roy Oswalt pitched a complete game five-hitter in a 5-1 loss for St. Louis.

The Cardinals' only base hits came from right fielder Scott Spiezio, catcher Gary Bennett (two), and second baseman Adam Kennedy (two). The Cardinals' one through five hitters went a combined 0-for-18 in the game, grounding into three double plays, striking out twice, and leaving six runners on base. Those hitters were David Eckstein, Chris Duncan, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds. St. Louis starting pitcher Anthony Reyes struggled a bit, giving up three runs in five innings pitched while striking out three.

The Cardinals have been struggling offensively this season to-date, but Oswalt was certainly not the right pitcher to help them overcome their woes at the plate. The Astros' ace forced St. Louis into an amazing 20 ground balls while throwing only 94 pitches. He faced only 31 batters in the game, and improved his regular season ERA through two starts to an astounding 1.08. His only trouble came in the top of the third inning, when the Cardinals' Kennedy doubled to lead off the inning. Following his two-base knock, backup catcher Gary Bennett (starting in place of Yadier Molina, who got the day off) singled, scoring Kennedy from second. The Cardinals would not pick up a run for the rest of the game.

The Astros offensive attack mainly featured first baseman Lance Berkman, left fielder Carlos Lee, second baseman Craig Biggio and catcher Brad Ausmus. Combined, those four were responsible for scoring three of Houston's five runs and knocked in all five of them. The first run came in the bottom of the first inning when third baseman Morgan Ensberg and Berkman singled, followed by Lee's sacrifice fly. The next outburst of offense came in the next frame, when Biggio doubled, scoring shortstop Adam Everett and Ausmus, who had reached by consecutive base hits. Reyes didn't allow any more runs, but after he was replaced by reliever Brad Thompson in the bottom of the sixth, things started to get out of hand.

Thompson began his mound appearance by facing Lee, who promptly took his pitch to the seats in left field. Thompson got out of the inning without allowing any more runs but in the following frame, Thompson gave up yet another home run - this time to Berkman, whose shot went to deep right field.

Making matters worse was the Cardinals' performance in the ninth inning, when Chris Duncan drew a leadoff walk, only to be part of Albert Pujols' double play ball. Scott Rolen grounded out to finish the game.

The Cardinals (1-4) face the Astros (1-4) Sunday at 1:05 pm CDT for the rubber match of the series. Two pitchers new to their respective teams will face off as St. Louis' Kip Wells gets the start against the Astros' off-season acquisition, Jason Jennings.

Game Notes:

-The Cardinals' anemic offense is becoming more than an issue. If something does not change soon, St. Louis will dig themselves into a deep hole to try to crawl out of later in the season. On Saturday night, David Eckstein went 0-for-4, lowering his average to .235. The only everyday starter batting over .300 is Chris Duncan (.400). Albert Pujols went hitless again (four at-bats), pushing his batting average down to an astoundingly low .077 in five games. Rolen (.118), Edmonds (.200), and Kennedy (.231) round out the rest of Saturday's lineup. The Cardinals better start getting more men on base and putting more runs on the board. Pujols has got to come around soon, he's definitely due a big hit.

-Roy Oswalt was amazing Saturday. He dominated the Cardinals best players for nine innings and got them to hit into 20 ground balls. That is no small feat. His complete game five-hitter in only 94 pitches was amazing. Reyes gave up five hits and three runs in five innings, while Oswalt gave up five hits and one run in nine. No comparison.

-Gary Bennett and Adam Kennedy did put the bat on the ball Saturday, but Bennett is not going to start often with Molina in front of him. Kennedy is going to get his at-bats, so he needs to continue to produce, but when the only players hitting the ball in a lineup are the 6-7-8 hitters, something is badly wrong. I thought about it a bit, and it really is starting to make sense as to why the Cardinals are not getting the offensive production they need. Here are my reasons for each player batting from leadoff to the fifth hole.

-David Eckstein is not a typical leadoff man. He doesn't steal a lot of bases and he doesn't have a high on base-percentage (a career .351 OBP). He doesn't hit for a high average either, as his career best batting average was .294 in 2005. So, what actually makes Eckstein an important key to the Cardinals? He has all the intangibles. He has experience, leadership, patience at the plate (only 284 career strikeouts in 3,351 at-bats), and he puts the ball in play. Right now, Eckstein's problem is a matter of luck. He is a contact hitter, and he is making contact (only one strikeout in five games), but he is not finding the holes for his groundballs to go through. His at-bats Saturday went like this: groundout to first, groundout to shortstop, groundout to first, groundout to pitcher for double play. Eckstein just needs to get in a groove and things will start to fall in place for him.

-Chris Duncan is the only hitter on the team actually producing, although he did go 0-for-3 against Oswalt. He walked once, showing some patience when it counted the most (a leadoff walk in the top of the ninth). I would not worry too much about him - he is full of confidence and he has the ability to go 2-for-4 with two RBIs on any given night.

-Albert Pujols is the toughest player on the team to evaluate. He is 1-for-13 at the plate in four games, his only hit a double against the Mets in game two of the season opening series. He has a total of 16 plate appearances (he has walked three times), and has struck out only once. The problem with Pujols is a little bit simpler than one would think. From my personal observations, it seems that Pujols is having trouble with his timing. He is swinging at pitches he would normally take, and getting underneath a lot of fastballs. If he can get one good at-bat where he finds the ball with his bat (even if it is only a base hit), he could get his timing back in order and start hitting the ball better. He's stuck in a rut right now, much like a lot of other star sluggers around the game (Ryan Howard of the Phillies and David Ortiz are hitting .158 and .167 respectively), but will snap out of it soon. It may take a pitcher who doesn't have the talent that Oswalt has to break out of his slump, but one of those pitchers will inevitably come along and Pujols will become the Pujols of old again.

-Scott Rolen has hit one of the Cardinals' two home runs on the season, but outside of that he has struggled offensively. His miserable .118 average is holding the Cardinals down and not giving Pujols a chance to break out of his slump with a little bit of protection in the lineup. Rolen has not had a completely healthy season in a long time and he has not been able to fully swing his bat for a couple of seasons. He is said to be absolutely fine right now, and perhaps he is having to adjust to being able to freely swing his bat. It could affect his timing some, much like Pujols, and once he gets a few good pitches to hit and does something with them he will gain some confidence and start hitting the ball well again.

-Jim Edmonds is a notoriously streaky hitter, but his current struggles at the plate have nothing do with streaky hitting. Let's face the truth: he is 36 years old and entering his 15th season in the Majors, most of which have been played in the physically demanding center field position. He isn't exactly young anymore, and he had problems with post-concussion syndrome last year (something that forced former Cardinals' catcher Mike Matheny to end his career prematurely) and has had multiple surgeries over the past few years. He is banged up nearly all of the time and doesn't have the same speed he had in the past. I expect Edmonds to continue to be a streaky hitter all season long, but he will probably have more cold streaks than the fans are used to seeing. The Cardinals might need to start really putting the pressure on center fielder prospect Colby Rasmus to start progressing through the minors a little faster, as Edmonds is likely to not be as useful as he has in recent years.

-Sunday's game features Kip Wells versus Jason Jennings. I believe Jennings may be the better pitcher of the two, but I think Wells has a good start Sunday and helps the Cardinals take the series. I also think Pujols breaks out of his slump in the game by at least getting two hits - possibly even a home run.

Brady Holzhauer can be reached via email at sportswriter5@gmail.com.

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