ST. LOUIS -- Kyle Lohse led the Cardinals to their third straight win Wednesday night, but the 5-1 victory over visiting Houston cost St. Louis its two starting corner outfielders.
Lohse scattered six hits over eight strong innings and pulled the Cardinals within one-half game of the Reds for the National League Central lead. Lohse improved to 5-2 on the season, giving St. Louis the only pitching staff in the NL with three five-game winners.
"Early on, I felt like I was kind of full on my fastball and missing a little bit, but after I got that figured out, it seemed like things got a little smoother," said Lohse, who threw 102 pitches. "It's always good to get the guys off the field as quick as possible."
But a pair of Cardinals left the field too soon. Left fielder Matt Holliday departed in the third inning with tightness in his left quadriceps. Right fielder Lance Berkman left in the fifth with soreness in his right wrist.
Berkman was slow to get up after a diving catch that robbed Chris Johnson of a hit. But Berkman's departure opened the door for Pete Kozma, who was recalled from Triple-A Memphis before the game, to make an impression in his Major League debut.
Kozma pinch-hit for Berkman and delivered with an RBI double to score Tyler Greene. The Busch Stadium crowd gave the rookie a standing ovation, and his heart was racing when he got to the bag.
"I'm surprised it wasn't pumping out of my jersey," Kozma said.
Mark Hamilton originally replaced Holliday in left field, but he was lifted for Greene in the fourth. Allen Craig moved from second base to left, while Greene came off the bench to fill the void in the infield. But St. Louis manager Tony La Russa wasn't done tweaking the defense to his liking. To start the sixth inning, Greene moved to Berkman's spot in right to allow Kozma to play second.
The widespread defensive changes left Lohse somewhat confused but highlighted St. Louis' versatile bench.
"At the end of the game, I didn't know who was where," Lohse said. "I just keep throwing it up there and letting them hit it to whoever was somewhere. We've got a lot of guys who can play different positions, and you need that, especially on a weird night like tonight."
With five corner outfielders and three second basemen seeing time through the first five innings, La Russa wasn't sure he had managed a game that needed as many changes that early.
"Probably not, that's really unusual," La Russa said. "But no second thoughts, athletes take care of things."
Though the Cardinals did lose two of their best hitters, the rest of the lineup took care of business against Houston starter Bud Norris -- no easy task considering Norris entered the game with a 5-1 record and a 1.97 ERA against St. Louis in his career.
The Cardinals exorcised some of their demons against Norris in the third inning, loading the bases before a Jon Jay single plated two. Albert Pujols followed with another single to bring home Ryan Theriot. Norris intentionally walked former teammate Berkman to load the bases, but he threw a ball to Craig on a full count to walk in a run and push the Cardinals' lead to 4-0.
Norris, 26, lost to the Cardinals for only the second time in his career, and he dropped to 2-3 on the season. The right-hander walked three batters in five innings and his command was off, as only 48 of his 91 pitches went for strikes.
"They were swinging the bats pretty early in the counts, and I'm sure that was probably part of their game plan," Norris said. "That's a good-hitting lineup, and we've been fortunate enough to do so well against them the last couple of times. You can't hold them down forever."
Houston managed its only run of the game in the seventh inning on a Johnson single that brought home Carlos Lee.