ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals are looking for pitching, but as July grinds along, it appears they may be finding some right at home. Jake Westbrook continued a post-All-Star break revival by the St. Louis starting rotation, helping the Cards beat the Astros, 3-1, at Busch Stadium.
Playing without Matt Holliday, who was ill, and getting only four innings from Lance Berkman, the Cards leaned on their starter for their fifth win in six games. Berkman, who missed Monday night's game due to discomfort in his right rotator cuff, was pulled on Tuesday after his second at-bat due to an aggravation of that condition.
Albert Pujols and David Freese hit home runs for the home team, which improved to seven games over .500 for the first time since July 5. The Cards moved into sole possession of first place in the National League Central.
Since the break, Cardinals starters are averaging nearly 6 2/3 innings per start, with a 2.84 ERA and a total of 12 walks in 11 games. The performance recalls the first part of the season, when St. Louis rode its rotation and lineup to the top of the division and even the NL's best record for a time.
Westbrook has been a key part of that, allowing two or fewer runs in each of his three starts in the second half. That follows a start to the season that saw his ERA close to 7.00 in mid-May.
"I'm just trying to be as consistent as I possibly can be," Westbrook said. "That's something I haven't been all year, and that's kind of where I want to be. Just put together good start after good start. Hopefully, I can keep it rolling."
Westbrook was often in trouble on Tuesday but never gave way. He pitched with at least one runner on base in each of his first five innings, including two singles among the first three batters he faced.
He never got out of his approach, though, keeping the ball on the ground to prevent threats from turning into rallies. Over Westbrook's six innings, the Astros stranded eight baserunners and went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position.
Those escapes allowed Westbrook to make it four strong starts in five chances in July. He's allowed two or fewer runs in all but one of his starts for the month, and has walked fewer than two men in seven out of eight appearances. It looks very much like Westbrook is building momentum.
"The key for me, throughout the entire ballgame but even more with guys on base, is to keep the ball down and stay away from the extra-base hit," he said. "That keeps the run totals down and keeps the innings to a minimum. That's what I have to do."
Should Westbrook take off, it would be more than welcome for a club searching for any kind of edge it can get in an extremely tight pennant race. A Cardinals team that leaned heavily on its starting pitching early in the year was less able to do so as the season wore on. However, with Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia surging, Westbrook finding his footing and Kyle McClellan coming off his best start in more than a month, there's increasing reason for optimism regarding the Redbirds' rotation.
General manager John Mozeliak acknowledged on Tuesday that he may have difficulty pulling off a deal for a rotation upgrade. Thus, the Cardinals will probably have to go with the starters who got them this far.
"Everybody that pitches has got to get hot," manager Tony La Russa said.
Offensively, the Cardinals had their troubles with Brett Myers, who outlasted Westbrook to go the full eight innings in defeat. Like Westbrook, Myers dodged some trouble, most notably with three double plays. He might well have deserved better in the first inning, as well.
Pujols' homer hit at the very top of the wall in center field, bouncing back onto the field of play. The call was so close as to require replay, and even on video, it wasn't entirely clear that the ball had fully cleared the wall. However, the umpires upheld the original call, giving the Redbirds a 2-0 lead.
The call did not sit well with the Astros.
"Any time they get an extra run when they shouldn't have," said Houston manager Brad Mills, "that's big, especially in a close game."
Given that the next two batters flied out, the decision mattered a great deal. Pujols likely wouldn't have scored if the ball had been ruled a double, and the whole game might have looked a good bit different. Instead, it went as the slugger's 431st big league homer, tying Cal Ripken Jr. for 40th on the all-time list.
Freese added an opposite-field solo jack, the 10th of his career, for insurance in the sixth. It was more than enough for Westbrook.
"I definitely watch how our rotation is going," Freese said. "When they roll, we roll."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.