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09/24/09 12:46 AM ET

Despite loss, Cards' magic number at one

Offense unable to solve rookie Norris; Cubs fall to Brewers

HOUSTON -- The champagne will stay on ice for another couple of days.

Bud Norris shut the Cardinals down once again on Wednesday night, sending St. Louis to a 3-0 defeat against the Astros at Minute Maid Park. As the Cards attempted to stifle the Astros in the eighth inning, a final score flashed on the out-of-town scoreboard, reporting that the Cubs had lost in Milwaukee. That meant that if the Cardinals had won, they would have clinched their fourth National League Central championship in six years.

Instead, they must wait -- two days, in fact, since the Redbirds are off on Thursday. They would clinch the title with a Cubs loss in San Francisco on Thursday night, but whether that happens or not, the Cardinals will not celebrate the division title until at least Friday in Denver.

"I'm disappointed," manager Tony La Russa said. "The Brewers beat the Cubs. We had a chance to have a perfect night, and when you don't do it, it's disappointing. Otherwise you don't care. So we're all disappointed."

Still, it was a measured disappointment in most of the clubhouse, since the Cards are now as close as they can possibly get without officially being part of the October party. They ensured that at the very least, they'll play beyond the regular season's final scheduled day of Oct. 4. If they lose every game, and the Cubs win every game, the two old rivals would play a one-game tiebreaker.

But that's exceptionally, even historically, unlikely. The Cardinals are on the doorstep.

"Everybody wants to clinch," said Albert Pujols. "But ... when you go to Spring Training, you want to have an opportunity to play in October. And we have a pretty good chance to get there."

For their part, the Astros delighted in preventing a dogpile on their home field. It's a feeling the Cardinals know well, having watched the Cubs celebrate a title against them last year.

"It's awesome," Houston manager Dave Clark said. "They [the Astros players] came out and were ready to go. Not to say they hadn't been in the last couple of days or so, but they didn't want that to happen here, especially after the Cubs had lost. So we wanted to go out and play good baseball, and we did and got the lead and were able to hold onto it. You don't expect to shut out a lineup like that, but it says a lot about the guys."

Perhaps in the future, though, the Astros will in fact expect to shut out the Cardinals when Norris is on the mound. In early August, the rookie righty dominated the Redbirds over seven two-hit, shutout innings. This time around, St. Louis had more chances but still couldn't make anything of them.

Norris tossed six shutout innings, allowing six hits and two walks. He was quite a bit less overwhelming, but the end result was the same: no runs for the Cardinals. St. Louis put two men on base in each of the first three innings, but stranded both runners each time.

"We had some nice at-bats," said Ryan Ludwick. "We just couldn't get anything done when we had runners on. He got out of situations."

The shutout spoiled a fine outing by John Smoltz, who was touched for two runs, but in actuality, threw the ball every bit as well as Norris. Leadoff doubles in the third and sixth led to single runs off the right-hander, but other than that, he was excellent. Smoltz struck out five and didn't issue a walk.

"I don't know how many games I've pitched [for the Cardinals]," he said, "but that would have won every one of them."

He badly wanted to be the man on the mound for a clincher, but instead, he'll have to wait like his teammates.

"This could have been a real fun night," said Smoltz, who had a pair of goggles hanging in his locker in case of a champagne celebration. "Get it out of the way, but we'll wait till Friday.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.