HOUSTON — With Cliff Lee and the Philadelphia Phillies doing their part by defeating the Atlanta Braves 4-2 at Turner Field, the St. Louis Cardinals wound up having a golden opportunity to move into a tie Monday night for the National League Wild Card lead.
However, the Astros, who will finish the 2011 regular season with the worst record in Major League Baseball, played the role of “spoiler.”
Angel Sanchez laid down a bunt with runners at third and first in the bottom of the 10th off Octavio Dotel (3-3) to push Brian Bogusevic across the plate for the winning run in Houston’s 5-4 victory, thus keeping St. Louis one game back in the Wild Card race.
The Cardinals entered the three-game series Monday with a 14-4 record over their last 18 games to close the gap on the Braves, who fell to 9-16 in the month of September with the loss Monday.
After two scoreless innings, St. Louis jumped out to a 1-0 lead, thanks in part to Matt Holliday’s RBI single to score David Freese.
Astros rookie left fielder J.D. Martinez gunned down three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols on the same play at home to end the top of the third and prevent St. Louis from taking a two-run lead.
Houston retaliated to take the lead in the bottom half, with Wandy Rodriguez laying down a bunt to score Clint Barmes, prior to Jason Bourgeois cracking a go-ahead double to left field.
Matt Downs, who got the spot start in right, took advantage of more playing time by belting a two-run homer in the bottom of the fourth.
Downs, one of the bright spots for the Astros in 2011, entered Monday’s game with the major league-lead in pinch-RBI (15) this season.
St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa elected to pull Jaime Garcia after the young lefty allowed four earned runs on four hits with one walk and five strikeouts over four innings in a no-decision effort.
The Cardinals loaded the bases with no outs in the fifth in what could have been a big inning, until Rodriguez pitched out of the jam.
Freese grounded into a double play that scored Jon Jay to cut the lead to 4-2, but Pujols struck out to strand Gerald Laird at third.
Rodriguez pitched into the seventh, yielding a leadoff single to Ryan Theriot, followed by another single to Jay, to set up Nick Punto’s sacrifice bunt that gave the Cardinals runners at third and second.
Astros manager Brad Mills decided to replace Rodriguez in favor of right-handed reliever Wilton Lopez, with Allen Craig pinch-hitting.
Lopez maintained Houston’s 4-2 lead by getting Craig and pinch-hitter Daniel Descalso on consecutive groundouts to end the inning.
Rodriguez surrendered two earned runs on eight hits with three walks and two strikeouts over 6 1/3 innings to earn a no-decision.
He entered Monday’s outing with a 10-8 record and 3.14 ERA over his last 24 starts and ends the 2011 regular season as the all-time franchise leader in strikeouts by a southpaw with 1,004.
Longtime Astros standout Lance Berkman, a consistent thorn in Houston’s side this season, tied the game at 4-4 with a two-run double off reliever Wesley Wright in the eighth to give the Cardinals hope of potentially moving into a tie for the NL Wild Card.
Berkman is hitting .406 (13-for-32) with five home runs, 14 RBI and three doubles over nine games against the Astros in 2011.
Astros closer Mark Melancon (8-4) allowed two hits over two scoreless innings to pick up his eighth victory of the regular season.
With the Cardinals unable to capitalize, Houston struck in the bottom of the 10th, starting with pinch-hitter Brian Bogusevic’s leadoff double.
Bourgeois laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance Bogusevic to third, but Dotel made a fielding error that enabled Bourgeois to reach.
Sanchez generated the walk-off win with the bunt single.
“We were all on the same page and knew what was going on,” Sanchez said. “I did a good job and the runner did a good job. We keep working hard. Everybody did a real good job and the bullpen came up big for the team. It was a good way to finish a game.”
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time St. Louis dropped a game on a walk-off bunt hit was Aug. 1, 1985 when Larry Bowa and the Chicago Cubs beat them 9-8 in the 14th inning.
The Astros improved to 5-13 in extra-inning games.
Although Monday’s loss was a tough blow to St. Louis, they still have two more opportunities to possible clinch the NL Wild Card.
Jake Westbrook (12-9, 4.48 ERA) will get the starting nod for St. Louis Tuesday night against Astros rookie Henry Sosa (3-5, 4.68 ERA).
First pitch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. CT.
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