Cards win, one win (or Astros loss) from clinching

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Before Saturday, Scott Spiezio's numbers as a
pinch-hitter from the left side were just as futile as the St.
Louis Cardinals' record the last few weeks.

After Spiezio's bases-loaded triple in the eighth inning beat
the Milwaukee Brewers 3-2, both his 1-for-20 slump and his team's
late-season swoon are on the verge of becoming footnotes. The
Cardinals, who had lost eight of the previous 10, cut their magic
number for clinching a third straight NL Central title to one.

"Numbers to me don't really matter," Spiezio said. "Anything
that happens in the past doesn't matter, and if you start thinking
about your numbers it can affect the future.

"I just go up there and try to keep everything simple, and
that's what I did."

Second-place Houston rallied to beat the Braves 5-4 in Atlanta.

"Nobody got to the point where we started getting down on our
team," Preston Wilson said after getting two hits and two stolen
bases. "Nobody started pointing fingers.

"We just said, 'Hey, we've got to get it done.'"

The Cardinals' had a once-imposing seven-game lead with 12 games
to go shaved to a half-game on Thursday before rallying behind a
pair of retreads. Jeff Weaver, who won for the first time at home
on Friday, had been released by the Angels.

Spiezio, 34, was the starting third baseman on the Angels' 2002
World Series championship team. But he played in only 29 games last
year for the Mariners before coming to the Cardinals as a
non-roster invitee to spring training.

The switch-hitting Spiezio is 8-for-36 overall as a pinch-hitter
with two homers and eight RBI. He's been much better in the
lineup, batting .271 in 61 starts.

"He just had a couple of years where I don't think physically
he was himself," manager Tony La Russa said. "Since the first day
he showed up in spring training, he's been very impressive."

Batting for light-hitting catcher Yadier Molina, Spiezio cleared
the bases on a 1-2 pitch from closer Francisco Cordero.
Pinch-hitter Jeff Cirillo's two-run single, his 1,000th hit with
Milwaukee, had put the Brewers ahead.

"He came up big for them," Cirillo said. "He's really turned
his career around and been a huge part of their team."

Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, who's faltered in his last two
starts, will oppose Carlos Villaneuva on Sunday unless the division
title is already in hand. Then, the Cardinals would save him for
the playoffs.

"You've got to think about it: Carpenter pitches tomorrow, then
he doesn't pitch -- if we win -- till the middle of the series," La
Russa said. "You've got a night, what else are you going to think

St. Louis might have to play a makeup game against the Giants on
Monday if it's necessary to decide the division. And if it's tied
after that, a one-game playoff would be Tuesday in Houston after
the Astros won a coin flip.

Albert Pujols singled for his second hit to lead off the eighth
against Jose Capellan and went to third on Scott Rolen's double
with one out. Brian Shouse (1-3) intentionally walked Juan
Encarnacion to load the bases.

Pujols passed up a chance to get the Cardinals on the board when
he went halfway down the line on Ronnie Belliard's line out to
right off Cordero for the second out. Spiezio's fourth triple made
that decision academic.

Cordero has blown his last two save chances after starting with
16 in a row for the Brewers. He was attempting his first five-out
save since joining Milwaukee.

"It was a great game," Brewers manager Ned Yost said. "Our
guys took a responsibility to come in and make the St. Louis
Cardinals earn it. They beat our best."

Tyler Johnson (2-4) pitched a scoreless eighth and fellow rookie
Adam Wainwright got three outs for his third save.

Cirillo grounded a single up the middle with the bases loaded in
the seventh off Jeff Suppan. Geoff Jenkins and Corey Hart hit
consecutive one-out singles and Suppan walked eighth-place hitter
Mike Rivera on four pitches with two outs.

Suppan had two of the Cardinals' seven hits against Ben Sheets,
who pitched six scoreless innings. In seven innings he allowed two
runs and five hits.

Sheets lost to the Cardinals on Sept. 19, the day before they
lost the first of seven in a row, and is now 4-13 lifetime against
St. Louis. He struck out seven and walked one, and in his last two
appearances he has allowed two runs in 14 innings.

"I felt all right," Sheets said "They battled me right until
the end and they were able to battle me enough until I was pretty
much done."

Sheets struck out the side in the sixth but needed a fourth out
after Jim Edmonds reached on a third-strike wild pitch in the dirt
to put runners at the corners with one out. Sheets recovered to
strike out Belliard and then got Molina on a grounder.

Pujols' diving catch of David Bell's liner to first helped
Suppan escape trouble in the second. Jenkins hit a leadoff double
but was stranded at third.

Game notes
Encarnacion, who is 1-for-20 against Sheets, did not start
after getting four hits on Friday ... The Brewers are 26-54 on the
road, second-worst in the NL. ... The Cardinals are 39-41 against
the NL Central.