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Friday, May 30, 2008

Clutch Duncan lifts Cards past Astros

Outfielder breaks out of slump with two-run single in first
ST. LOUIS -- Persona non grata during player introductions, Chris Duncan quickly turned hero to the fans at Busch Stadium on Thursday night.

Duncan lined a two-run single in the first inning and played a fine defensive game, as the Cardinals beat the Astros, 3-2, to win the three-game series between the National League Central rivals.

With one swing, Duncan equaled the RBI total from his previous nine games. With five putouts in left field, he began to mollify some of the criticism of his defense, which flared up again after a ball dropped in front of him in Los Angeles on Sunday.

On Thursday, though, Duncan contributed in both phases of the game. Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse settled to pitch six-plus quality innings, but he surrendered quite a bit of hard contact in the first couple of frames. Much of that contact was directed at Duncan, and each time he made the play. Of the five putouts Duncan registered on a busy night in left field, two of them were on hard liners in the first inning.

"That was humongous," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "He made the plays in the first and came up against Roy Oswalt, behind in the count, [and] fight that [at-bat]. That shows you what he is. This guy's a champion."

Oswalt retired the first two batters of the first inning, but an Albert Pujols single started the rally. Oswalt walked Ryan Ludwick and Troy Glaus, bringing up Duncan, whose single gave the Redbirds a 2-0 lead. Pujols later added a solo home run.

One hit doesn't get Duncan out of a slump, as he's still 13-for-61 (.213) in May. But for a player inclined to be an extremely harsh critic of his own play, one big hit could get him turned in the right direction. Duncan left after the game without speaking to reporters, but his teammates were happy to talk for him.

"I think that was a huge hit for him," said Skip Schumaker, one of Duncan's better friends on the team. "Everybody knows around here how hard he works to get his swing back. He's constantly looking at video, constantly hitting early, constantly in the cage. Nobody pulls more for Chris than his teammates, because every guy in the clubhouse knows how hard he's working to get out of his funk."

Lohse allowed a run on five hits during his six-plus innings. He didn't strike out a batter and was helped out by an outfield defense that didn't let much of anything drop. The only run against him came on a leadoff homer in the seventh inning by Carlos Lee.

"They've got a lot of power, and you don't want to make a mistake," Lohse said. "That was the main thing. Even though I didn't have great location, I wasn't allowing myself to miss back over the middle of the plate. A lot of misfires off the plate, but those are better than the ones you throw down the middle when you're struggling."

Houston, which entered the series with one of the league's hottest offenses, was held to three runs over the final two games. Kyle McClellan, Ron Villone and Chris Perez combined to shut out the Astros in the seventh and eighth, and Ryan Franklin allowed a solo homer in the ninth but picked up the save.

The Cardinals moved back to nine games over .500, one game shy of their season high-water mark, as they won their fourth straight series. They are still 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Cubs in the NL Central.

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