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STL@CHC: Kozma lifts the first homer of his career

CHICAGO -- Jason Motte joined elite Cardinals company. Allen Craig moved closer to his own personal milestone. Kyle Lohse reached one himself. And the Cardinals inched nearer to a return to the postseason with a 6-3 victory over the Cubs to close out the team's final 2012 visit to Wrigley Field.

The Cardinals, winners in six of their last seven games, head to Houston gripping a 2 1/2-game lead over the Brewers for the National League's second Wild Card spot. Nine games remain on the club's 162-game schedule.

"We've been playing pretty good the last week and we're still in a pretty good spot," Craig said. "We know we have a really good offense. We're just going to ride it out."

That "really good offense," however, had not shown up much this month -- at least when it came to putting tallies on the scoreboard. Sunday's six-run output by the Cardinals was the first since Sept. 1. Between then and now, St. Louis had lost five games in which an opponent hadn't scored more than five.

Adding to the frustration was that five of the team's nine September losses had come by one run.

Lohse improved to 16-3 with his 24th quality start, this one spanning six innings. He pitched with a lead after the Cardinals assumed a three-run advantage during a four-hit third despite the fact that the Cards tried to run themselves out of the opportunity.

After Matt Carpenter's baserunning blunder -- in which he was tagged out at third with Jon Jay already standing on the base following Matt Holliday's single -- cost St. Louis the second out of the inning, Craig came through with a two-strike, two-run single. Those two RBIs bumped Craig's season total, in 111 games, to 89. That puts him only nine away from leading the team in that category, even though the first baseman spent five weeks of the season on the disabled list.

"The more I watch him," Matheny said, "the more I'm impressed by everything about him."

Craig also has a shot at his first 100-RBI season.

"I've been on the field enough to be with a few other guys who play every day," Craig said. "In that respect, it is a big deal. But at this time in the year, we're trying to get into the playoffs regardless of what my numbers are."

David Freese followed Craig with another two-strike RBI hit to extend the lead to three.

The Cubs climbed back with a pair of fourth-inning runs. The two clubs then traded solo homers in the sixth. Shortstop Pete Kozma connected for the first of his Major League career. Chicago's Alfonso Soriano hit his 31st of the season.

After the game, the Cardinals traded some autographs and gear so that Kozma could keep the ball, which wasn't the one a fan threw back onto the field at the time.

It wasn't the only keepsake leaving the ballpark. Motte, too, had a ball in his tote, this one marking the pitch he threw to collect save No. 40 of the season. In doing so, Motte becomes just the fourth Cardinals closer to record a 40-save season. Preceding him were Jason Isringhausen (2004), Lee Smith (1991, '92, '93) and Bruce Sutter (1984).

Six of Motte's 40 saves have come in the last seven games.

"If I'm converting saves, it means we're winning," Motte said. "That's what it's about -- winning."

The final three innings were covered by Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and Motte, ensuring that Lohse exited having established a career high in victories. He continues to lead the Majors in winning percentage, as well, now with a mark of .842.

It should all bolster Lohse's NL Cy Young Award candidacy. Lohse's ERA, though it crept up a few points to 2.77, ranks third-lowest in the league.

"I thought he was good the whole way [today]," Matheny said. "I've just been impressed with his consistency."

Lohse closed his 102-pitch outing by working around a sixth-inning error by second baseman Skip Schumaker. His mistakes were few, though a misplaced changeup to Welington Castillo and an errant slider-turned-wild pitch opened the door for a two-run Chicago fourth.

Lohse then left a fastball over the middle of the plate to Soriano.

"If that's the worse that it can get, I think I can live with it," said Lohse, who, if the Cardinals leave the rotation as-is would be in line to pitch the Wild Card playoff game, if St. Louis wins the second Wild Card spot. "The bottom line, we came out of it with the win, which was good."

Lohse left with the Cardinals leading, 4-3. The offense erased the potential for too much drama, though, with a two-run eighth off reliever Alberto Cabrera. The Cards loaded the bases with a single and two walks. Kozma followed with a sacrifice fly.

Kept out of the lineup because of illness, Carlos Beltran was healthy enough to pinch-hit, and he came through with an RBI single up the middle. Still not feeling well, Beltran had, not long before his at-bat, informed the staff that he felt he was strong enough to make the pinch-hit appearance.

He had not taken a swing all day before heading to the plate.

"I'm glad I was able to come through for the team," Beltran said.

St. Louis, while stranding nine runners, finished a solid 4-for-9 with runners in scoring position. The Cards finished the year with a 10-7 series edge over their division rival.

"We played these guys pretty much toe-to-toe for three days, so that was nice to see," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "Fought them and gave them the best we had."

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