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HOU@STL: Wainwright fans 12 in five-hit shutout

ST. LOUIS -- This repeated insistence inside the Cardinals clubhouse that each game, regardless of the opponent, is as important as the next is not an inherently flawed approach. It does not, however, account for the reality that some clubs are built to offer more resistance than others.

And that contrast in competition, as the Cardinals were reminded on Tuesday, can be quite sharp.

Inserted into a stretch of 13 games the Cardinals play against teams that, if the season ended today, would be in the playoffs, are three against the Astros, who are plodding through a season of massive transition. St. Louis pounced on the opportunity to expose the Majors' worst team in the series opener, grabbing a 7-0 win in front of 35,370 at Busch Stadium.

"I don't think we go out looking to sweep a team," Allen Craig said. "But I think we have to take advantage of every opportunity that's given to us."

As has become the recent norm, Adam Wainwright was dominant, tossing his third complete game of the season and his second shutout. In doing so, he picked up his fourth win in as many August starts.

Wainwright solidified his recent role as stopper -- picking up this win on the heels of the club's draining, 19-inning loss to the Pirates on Sunday -- and he reaffirmed recent comparisons to his pre-surgery self.

In four starts this month, Wainwright has a 1.16 ERA.

"That's as dominant as you can get," Skip Schumaker said. "We need that ace and he's our ace. Enough hasn't been said about our pitching. Offensively, we've missed some chances with some really good starts. That's a little frustrating. But our pitching has been unbelievable, and he's our ace. It's good to see that he's taken over that spot."

Wainwright's reemergence has been gradual, beginning with the step forward he took in a mid-May bullpen session, during which he righted his arm slot. He pitched his first shutout the season immediately after and since then has gone 10-5 with a 2.85 ERA.

"He's been pretty impressive for a while," manager Mike Matheny said. "It's fun to watch him, and I know he likes to take the lead with the staff. I don't know what more you could ask from him."

Wainwright minimized the Astros' offensive activity to five hits and one walk, and the right-hander didn't allow a runner to third until the final inning.

He was also impressive with his efficiency. While throwing 105 pitches (71 strikes), Wainwright never needed more than 16 pitches to get through an inning. The Astros extended him to a three-ball count only three times.

"He threw every pitch he wanted in every location," Houston second baseman Jose Altuve said. "That was the key to his game. We tried to be aggressive early in the count. Give credit to him."

And then there were the strikeouts.

Wainwright collected 12, a career high he achieved once in 2009 and once in 2010.

"A starter's job is to start the game and try to finish the game," said Wainwright, now 12-1 against Houston in his career. "That's always my intention. When I start the game, I have every intention of throwing the last pitch as well. When you get nothing but zeros up there, it's a special day."

With the way Wainwright was handcuffing Houston's offense, St. Louis' own four-run first inning meant this game would be played absent of suspense.

As poorly as the Astros have played lately, starter Lucas Harrell had been a bright spot. He had limited opponents to two or fewer runs in each of his last seven starts, and he had already beaten the Cardinals twice at home this year.

Yet, armed with a pointedly patient approach, the Cardinals jumped on Harrell immediately.

Jon Jay led off with a double and scored on a one-out balk. Five straight St. Louis singles followed, which pushed across three runs. Yadier Molina collected one RBI, while Schumaker's single off the glove of Altuve accounted for two more.

Two more runs scored in the third, which Harrell opened with consecutive walks. By the end of the inning, Craig and David Freese had already scored twice, while Molina and Schumaker each had themselves a multi-RBI game.

"We know that when we're at our best, we're patient and we make the pitcher throw strikes and we take what pitches are given to us," said Craig, who extended his hitting streak to 10 games. "I think sometimes we get away from that and are a little too over-aggressive. Tonight, we got back to swinging at pitches in the zone and working the count and drawing some walks."

All eight of the Cardinals' starting position players finished with at least one hit. Five of them scored at least once, including Rafael Furcal, who doubled and scored the team's final run in the sixth. He was pushed home on Jay's single.

A St. Louis club that mustered only 11 hits in 19 innings of play on Sunday, tallied more than that in eight innings on Tuesday. Five of those hits came with a runner in scoring position. That's one more than the Cardinals had in their entire three-game, 37-inning series with the Pirates.

"We knew we had a very good challenge ahead of us, and we were kind of excited about it," Schumaker said. "We got off on the right foot."

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