But now they find themselves in second place for the first time since June 23. They still are two games behind the Chicago Cubs in the National League Central, but they have nudged ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers by a half-game.
While the Cardinals hadn't been at .500 for more than four months, struggling left fielder Chris Duncan hadn't homered since July 26 (67 at-bats) before he banged his 20th Tuesday. And he had driven in just three runs since the previous homer.
Duncan got that many in one-bat Tuesday off Woody Williams, who is 1-6 against his former team, counting postseason play. Duncan hit a three-run homer into the second deck off a changeup in the first inning, and he added another RBI with a single in the fifth.
"The last three or four days, you can see him starting to be himself," La Russa said.
Rick Ankiel, the Cardinals' other corner outfielder Tuesday, had his second three-hit game as a major-leaguer, doubling and singling twice while scoring once and driving in a run.
While the Cardinals reached .500, Braden Looper eased over that mark, winning for the 11th time in 21 decisions. Looper allowed the first two hitters of the game to reach base but then shut down the Astros for seven innings, allowing four hits. He raised his career record against Houston to 6-2 with a 2.07 ERA.
CARDINALS 7, ASTROS 0: The Cardinals rapped 16 hits, including three each by Chris Duncan, Albert Pujols and Rick Ankiel, and Braden Looper allowed just six baserunners in seven innings. The Cardinals had runners in scoring position all night, going 5-for-15 in those opportunities.
NOTES AND QUOTES
--With the Cardinals playing 35 games in 34 days and having a big lead in Tuesday's game, manager Tony La Russa removed 1B Albert Pujols, CF Jim Edmonds and 3B Scott Rolen to give them at least an inning or two of rest.
La Russa remains most concerned about Rolen's troublesome left shoulder holding up the rest of the way.
"He had some swings where it sure looked like it was bothering him," La Russa said.
--If the Cardinals don't have any more postponements, they will set a major league record for playing the most consecutive games to close a season without a day off. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the previous record for consecutive days played at the end of the season was 31, by the 2000 New York Yankees and Montreal Expos.
--As the Cardinals are playing Houston, the Brewers and Cubs are playing in Chicago. It would seem logical that the Cardinals would pull for the Brewers to win at least two of three, but La Russa said, predictably, "I'm pulling for the Cardinals to win. You just have to take care of your business. If you don't win, that other stuff doesn't matter."
--LF Chris Duncan, who had been a month-long dive, has hit safely in his last four games. He collected three hits Tuesday.
--Manager Tony La Russa said he had received no indication that INF/OF Scott Spiezio, who is being treated for substance abuse, would be back anytime soon or even before the end of the season. 2B Adam Kennedy, who had knee surgery Aug. 14, will not be back, La Russa said.