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AP - Sports

St. Louis' series with the lowly Houston Astros carries extra importance because wins could be hard to come by for the Cardinals over the next week.

So far, the defending World Series champions have been focused on the task at hand.

With a daunting road trip looming, the Cardinals look to complete their sweep over the Astros on Thursday.

St. Louis (67-56) has won its first two games in the series with Houston (39-85) and taken advantage of the struggles of Pittsburgh and Los Angeles to move one-half game ahead of the Pirates and one up on the Dodgers for the NL's second wild-card spot.

Manager Mike Matheny admitted that he keeps an eye on the out of town scoreboard this time of year.

"We try not to look up there too often because we do believe we control our destiny by how we play the game," he said after Wednesday's 4-2 win. "But it would be a lie to say we didn't pay attention to what other people in the league are doing.''

The Cardinals' next stretch could have a huge impact on their playoff hopes, as they embark on a 10-game road trip Friday with series against NL Central-leading Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and NL East-leading Washington.

Before looking too far ahead, though, St. Louis tries to sweep the Astros for the first time since April 2009.

John Jay is 5 for 9 with two RBIs in the first two games of this series, while Yadier Molina is 4 for 7 with three runs driven in.

Allen Craig has singled in each contest, and is batting .395 during a career-best 11-game hitting streak.

The Astros were limited to just three hits Wednesday against Kyle Lohse and a pair of relievers, and have combined for three runs and 14 hits in losing their first three games under interim manager Tony DeFrancesco.

"We're not scoring enough runs,'' DeFrancesco said. "We're trying to give these guys confidence. Hopefully more confidence, more at-bats, things will change for them. You have to hit a ball hard and it find a hole and that's not happening.''

The offense hopes for better luck against Jake Westbrook (12-9, 3.50 ERA), who takes the ball two days after agreeing to a $9.75 million, one-year contract to stay in St. Louis.

Westbrook had his five-start winning streak end in Friday's 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh, as he gave up two runs and six hits in 7 2-3 innings. The runs scored on a wild pitch and a passed ball in the fourth inning.

Despite the disappointing outcome, the right-hander still has a 1.69 ERA in his last three starts.

This will be his first start of the season against the Astros, against whom he went 2-0 with a 5.27 ERA in three starts last year.

Houston counters with Dallas Keuchel (1-5, 4.99), who'll be making his first appearance against the Cardinals.

After recording a 10.42 ERA in losing his four July starts, the rookie left-hander has a 3.38 ERA in three outings this month. Against Arizona on Friday, he gave up two runs and four hits in 6 2-3 innings, but was saddled with a 3-1 loss.

Despite his solid August pitching, he is 0-1 this month, and hasn't won since June 23, his second career start.

The Astros have lost eight of Keuchel's 10 starts, and are 7-42 since June 28.

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