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HOU@STL: Patterson picks up RBI in first Cards at-bat

ST. LOUIS -- An infusion of new faces couldn't save the Cardinals from a sloppy and frustrating defeat at the hands of the last-place Astros on Thursday night. Nor could it save them from losing nearly as many players due to injury as they added via trade.

St. Louis couldn't make an early two-run lead stand, falling in a 5-3 defeat and losing ground to each of the other two top contenders in the National League Central. Three of the club's four new acquisitions from a Wednesday trade with the Blue Jays made their debut, but at the same time three Cards were removed during the game as the result of injuries.

The Cards settled for a four-game home split with Houston, which has the Majors' worst record and run differential, after taking the series' first two games. They are now tied with Pittsburgh for second place in the division, 1 1/2 games behind Milwaukee.

"Definitely a game we let get away," said third baseman David Freese, who was 0-for-3 and was charged with an error. "We're trying to win every series and obviously to come out here and split is not what we wanted to do."

Houston didn't play a particularly sharp game either, magnifying the missed opportunity for the home team. The Astros committed two errors and hit into two double plays, and in the early going starter Wandy Rodriguez looked shaky. But Rodriguez and his teammates withstood the Cards' early threats, and the left-hander retired the last 13 batters he faced in a seven-inning stint.

Making the sting worse were the injuries to a team already playing short a man. Catcher Gerald Laird lasted two innings before being removed with what the club called a "mild sprain" of his left ring finger. Infielder Nick Punto was pulled after four innings due to a strained left oblique muscle. And in the top of the eighth, catcher Tony Cruz was lifted after a foul tip hit him on the right hand.

That all came on top of outfielder Lance Berkman being out as he recovers from some pain in his right shoulder. Berkman stepped into the on-deck circle in the ninth inning on Thursday, but only as a decoy.

Still, this one would have been frustrating even if the home team had come out unscathed. The Cardinals missed a chance to knock Rodriguez out of the game early, and once he settled in, they had little for him. They gave gifts to the Astros on both sides of the ball, with a caught-stealing, an error and two passed balls.

It might all have been offset if starter Jaime Garcia had been sharp, but he was not at his best either. Garcia permitted five runs, four earned, on eight hits over six sometimes laborious innings.

"It was just a kind of a weird game," Garcia said.

Each of the three new Cardinals who played enjoyed some success, at least. Corey Patterson got the start in right field in place of Berkman. Patterson singled in a run in his first at-bat, but was also thrown out trying to steal third, helping to short-circuit the promising second inning.

Left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski pitched two extremely impressive innings, allowing a double to Hunter Pence but striking out four of the seven batters he faced. Octavio Dotel, the righty reliever picked up in the Cards' trade with Toronto, pitched a scoreless ninth. Starter Edwin Jackson, the fourth player acquired in the deal, is slated to make his Cardinals debut as Friday night's starting pitcher against the Cubs.

St. Louis laced five hits, including three doubles, in the first three innings to take a 3-1 lead. However, that lead didn't even last a half-inning. A double, a single, a wild pitch and a sac fly tied the game in the fourth, and in the fifth Rodriguez scored the go-ahead run after reaching on an error. Carlos Lee's solo homer in the sixth provided insurance for the visitors.

All the while, Rodriguez was picking up steam, making it two consecutive fine starts by Houston pitchers against the St. Louis offense. The Cardinals have scored three or fewer runs in four of their past five games.

"I didn't feel very comfortable the first three innings, but later in the game I felt comfortable on the mound," Rodriguez said. "I don't know what happened the first two or three innings."

Even over those first two or three innings, though, the Cardinals missed out on some chances. In each of the first three innings, they got a runner into scoring position who didn't score. It looked early as though the home team might chase Rodriguez, but by the second half of the game it was clear he had taken control.

"Wandy's obviously a quality pitcher," Freese said. "He basically worked with two pitches tonight. And to be honest, you can't really let that happen with a starter. He's got to need to use his third pitch in an outing, and he didn't have to do that tonight."

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