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AP - Sports

Not surprisingly, last season's World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals had little trouble beating a Houston Astros team that racked up its most losses in franchise history.

There have been some changes, however, since they last met.

In the first meeting between these NL Central rivals Friday night at Minute Maid Park, the Cardinals are without the two hitters that battered Houston pitching a year ago while the Astros are coming around offensively and trying to win their fourth straight game.

St. Louis (16-9) went 10-5 against the Astros last season, and took six of nine in Houston. Last year's Astros lost a franchise-record 106 games and were a major league-worst 31-50 at home, but this season's team is starting to show it won't be pushed around.

Houston (11-14) completed a three-game home sweep of the New York Mets with Wednesday's 8-1 victory, and has won seven of its first 12 at Minute Maid Park.

"We don't mind if people think they can come in here and get a couple of wins off us," Chris Johnson told the Astros' official website. "We're just going to try to win every series."

Johnson hit two homers Wednesday for Houston, which has seven home runs in the last four games after totaling four in its previous 14.

Jed Lowrie and Jose Altuve are leading the offense, and neither has had much experience in this series.

Lowrie, who is batting .524 with two homers and six RBIs during a six-game hitting streak, was acquired from Boston in the offseason and has never faced St. Louis. Altuve, third in the NL in batting at .358, hit .440 with two doubles and two RBIs in six games against the Cardinals last season as a rookie.

Neither have faced scheduled starter Kyle Lohse (4-0, 1.62 ERA), who was sharp in his two outings against the Astros last season. The right-hander allowed four hits in seven scoreless innings in a 6-5 win in Houston on April 27, and permitted one run and six hits in eight innings in a 5-1 home victory three weeks later.

Lohse was a little shaky Saturday against Milwaukee, allowing three runs, six hits - including two homers - and four walks in six innings after yielding three runs, two walks and no homers over 27 1-3 innings in his first four starts. He still earned the victory in the 7-3 final, and the Cardinals have won all five of his starts.

While Lohse has to face a couple of new faces in a blossoming Houston lineup, the Astros' Lucas Harrell (1-2, 4.71) won't have to worry about the two players that were instrumental to St. Louis' success in last season's series.

Lance Berkman, who is on the disabled list, and Albert Pujols - now with the Los Angeles Angels - combined for seven homers, 23 RBIs and 21 runs in the 15 games.

Harrell still will have to be careful pitching to David Freese and Carlos Beltran, though. Freese hit .412 with one homer, three doubles and 11 runs in 11 games against Houston last season, while Beltran batted .361 with a homer and three RBIs in nine contests.

Beltran, who homered twice and had a career-high seven RBIs in Wednesday's 12-3 win over Pittsburgh, had a scheduled day off in Thursday's 6-3 loss. It was the fourth time the Cardinals failed to complete a sweep after winning the first two games.

"You want to complete what you started,'' said Jake Westbrook, Thursday's losing pitcher.

This will be Harrell's second appearance against the Cardinals after throwing a perfect inning of relief against them last September.

He was knocked around for six runs and nine hits in Saturday's 6-0 loss to Cincinnati, Houston's fourth straight defeat with the right-hander on the mound.

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