ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals rode another strong pitching performance, this time by Kyle McClellan, en route to their fourth win in a row, beating the Astros, 4-2, on Thursday afternoon to complete a perfect homestand.
McClellan was efficient in eight innings, needing 90 pitches to improve to 6-1 as the Cards reclaimed first place in the National League Central. They lead the Reds by one-half game.
"When I'm at my best, I'm working quick, throwing strikes -- there's no secret to that," said McClellan, who waited out a 55-minute rain delay before throwing the game's first pitch.
The right-hander, who became a father on Sunday night, did not issue a walk and was a model of consistency for St. Louis, which has won 12 of its past 16 home games.
"He looked the same in the first inning right through the game," said Cards manager Tony La Russa. "He didn't have a lot to work with as far as the lead, but [Houston] tried everything. They swung early and then they started taking. He was very consistent."
St. Louis' lineup appeared to be lacking some punch, as starting outfielders and offensive leaders Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday were held out. Both left Wednesday's victory with injuries. On the other hand, the Redbirds welcomed back a familiar face in Colby Rasmus, who started in center for the first time since Saturday, the result of an abdominal strain.
But Allen Craig, filling in for Holliday in left field and in the cleanup spot in the order, showed why La Russa likes to have his bat in the lineup. Craig blasted a leadoff home run off Houston starter J.A. Happ in the sixth on a full count.
"To be honest, the 3-2 pitch, I put the ball just where I wanted it," Happ said. "He put a good swing on it and it had enough. He was a difference-maker today, that's for sure."
Craig went 3-for-4, adding a double and a single to his solo shot. All three hits came when he led off an inning. His emergence in left as Holliday's replacement reflected the Cards' mental toughness of late, after losing three games in Cincinnati before the homestand.
"It shows that we're a resilient group, we don't give up," Craig said. "We've had some injuries of late, but we stepped up today and got the win."
Rasmus showed no signs of rust, smacking a double to the gap in right-center in his second plate appearance. Rasmus scored in the second on an RBI double from Gerald Laird.
McClellan sailed through the first three innings, setting down the Houston lineup in order before the Astros strung together three productive at-bats in the fourth: a Clint Barmes double and Hunter Pence single paved the way for Carlos Lee's sac fly.
But McClellan composed himself and strung together three straight strikeouts.
"He mixed it up pretty well today, like the last couple of pitchers we've been facing," Barmes said. "He came right at us. We went up there, and if you take any pitches, you're down 0-2. He came right at guys and we just couldn't get anything started. He threw the ball pretty well and kept us off balance. He looked good today."
St. Louis' makeshift lineup did make Happ work, however, and the left-hander needed 119 pitches to go six innings. He struck out eight but walked three, falling to 3-5.
"Every pitcher that we've faced has had a high count," said Albert Pujols. "Today, Happ threw over 115 pitches. If you go by that, we're just putting some quality at-bats every day, from the top of the lineup all the way down."
It marked the fourth straight game that the Cards' starter outdueled a quality opposing starter -- Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Bud Norris all fell victim to strong starting pitching and timely hits from St. Louis.
"They've been one of the bright spots on our club right there with our offense," La Russa said. "Our starting pitching has been wonderful."
McClellan took the hill for the first time since the birth of his first daughter, Olivia Grace. Since becoming a father, McClellan admits life has changed around the house and said he had to sleep downstairs to avoid the baby's cries Wednesday night. But La Russa was impressed with his starter's demeanor.
"All of a sudden, you've got a new member in the family, I guarantee his days and nights have been different," the skipper said. "It's hard to bring it to the ballpark, as far as your work routine, because you get distracted, but he handled it outstanding."