Not only had the Astros just snapped a season-long nine-game losing streak that gave interim manager Dave Clark his first win, they made sure the St. Louis Cardinals postponed their National League Central-clinching celebration for at least one more day and for a different city.
As a remote-controlled car buzzed around the clubhouse floor and rookie pitcher Bud Norris searched frantically for the street clothes the veterans stashed away in a prank, the Astros soaked up a 3-0 win Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park.
"We just wanted to stop the nine-game losing streak that we had, and I think everybody is excited we won a game," Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada said. "Not because it's the Cardinals, but we were excited to win the game for Clark and [help him] win his first game in the big leagues."
Norris (6-3) beat the Cardinals for the second time in as many starts against them, throwing six scoreless innings and giving up six singles and two walks. He worked seven scoreless innings at St. Louis in his first Major League start on Aug. 2.
"It felt good to go out there and help my team as much as I can," said Norris, who is 3-0 with a 1.47 ERA in his past four starts. "To pitch six was great, especially against those guys. They're one win away from clinching this thing, and we definitely wanted to give them a fight, and I think we did. We have Cincinnati coming in, and hopefully we can keep playing better baseball."
The Astros' bullpen backed Norris by allowing one hit and striking out five batters in three innings. Jeff Fulchino struck out all three batters he faced in the seventh, LaTroy Hawkins worked the eighth and Jose Valverde recorded his 24th save.
"We never want that to happen, especially at home against a rival like that," Fulchino said. "It's good for us. It's good that we kind of hopefully turned this thing around a little bit, and we'll give it our best shot the rest of the way. In your own place against a rival, you never want them to clinch."
After the game, Valverde presented Clark with the game ball.
"I got the monkey off my back," said Clark, who was named interim manager when Cecil Cooper was dismissed Monday.
The Astros overcame a good outing by Cardinals starter John Smoltz by scratching out runs in the third and sixth innings. Smoltz, who was making his first regular-season start in Houston since Aug. 26, 1998, at the Astrodome, gave up five hits and two runs in six innings.
Tejada had a two-out RBI single in the third, and Carlos Lee drove in Tejada with a sacrifice fly in the sixth. Tejada went 2-for-4 and set a franchise record for shortstops with his 180th hit of the season.
"That single was big for us and we got the lead," Tejada said. "The kid threw a pretty good game. He moved the ball around today, and that's why we won."
Norris threw 99 pitches in six innings, but 65 of those came in the first three innings, including 24 in both the first and second frames. He walked a batter and allowed a single in both innings, but Norris became much more efficient as the game progressed.
"The first three innings, I worked really hard, but that's going to happen," Norris said. "Not every day is going to be an easy day. You just go out there and try to keep making pitches, and some nights it's going to be easier and some nights it's going to be harder."
Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols was impressed.
"He's pretty aggressive in the strike zone," Pujols said. "He mixed his pitches pretty well. He got in trouble, and he got away. He made pitches when he needed to. He's a young guy who has a lot of promise in his career if he can stay healthy. Obviously, he kept the ball down well and mixed his pitches."
Lee drove in his 98th run of the season by reaching out and poking an 0-2 pitch from Ryan Franklin into center field to score Michael Bourn from second base in the eighth. Lee is two RBIs shy of reaching 100 for the fifth consecutive season.
All of it added up to a happy interim manager and a happier clubhouse.
"It's awesome," Clark said. "They 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."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.