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Astros unable to cash in on chances

Astros unable to cash in on chances

ST. LOUIS -- For the second consecutive playoff game, Chris Burke hit a pinch-hit home run for the Astros. But unlike the walk-off home run he hit in the 18th inning of Game 4 of the National League Division Series in Houston, there was no thunderous applause to follow.

Burke's two-run homer in the seventh sailed into the left-field seats in Busch Stadium and made about as much noise as spare change would falling to the ground in the Himalayas. It was a rare blemish on an otherwise stainless night by the crisp St. Louis defense and stellar pitching performance by Chris Carpenter.

Carpenter came into the game sporting a 4-0 record and a 1.85 ERA against Houston in 2005 and left with his fifth win in six appearances against the Astros.

Burke's homer, which turned out to be inconsequential, signified the muzzling the Astros offense endured in Game 1 of the NLCS on Wednesday. When there were chances to score against the Cards' Cy Young Award candidate, the Astros were snuffed. When Houston's offense came through, it didn't matter.

"Carpenter was solid the whole way through," Houston catcher Brad Ausmus said. "When he does get in trouble -- which doesn't happen a lot -- he does a great job of getting out of it."

Take the third inning for example. With the Cardinals up, 3-0, the Astros had an opportunity to start a rally. Carpenter seemed to be struggling, giving up a single and consecutive walks to load the bases with one out. But the Astros were muted when Lance Berkman grounded into a 4-6-3 double play.

"I wish the ball would have been in the air, or more to the right, anywhere but right at the guy," Berkman said. "But I felt like I had a good pitch, a good swing and that I hit it hard. You can't do anything about that."

In the fourth and sixth innings, Astros rallies were halted by more solid Cardinals defense. With runners on first and third and one out in the fourth, Adam Everett hit a ground ball right at Cardinals third baseman Abraham Nunez. The third baseman fired home to retire the lead runner, Morgan Ensberg, for out No. 2. Ausmus then grounded out to end the inning.

"I'm glad Morgan ran," Houston manager Phil Garner said. "Typically, when the ground ball is hit, we want to stay out of a double play, so you have a decision to make there. I thought Nunez made a nice play on the ball. Give him credit for reading the play well and going to the plate with it."

Mike Lamb thought he had gotten one run back in the sixth. He nearly hit one out of the park, but a leaping Reggie Sanders caught it in front of the wall in left field.

For all the talk about the Cardinals' fearsome lineup and dominant pitching staff, Game 1 was won by the team's clutch defense.

"I've said from the beginning that the Cardinals are probably the most complete team in the league," second baseman Craig Biggio said.

"Not just pitching and hitting, but their defense as well. They're good baserunners. I think all aspects of the game -- their bullpen, starting pitching, offense, baserunning, defense -- they do it all combined, probably better than any other team in the league."

Stephen A. Norris is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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