Cardinals reduce magic number to 2


DENVER (AP) -- The St. Louis Cardinals couldn't have been much
more efficient than this: They came to Coors Field with a magic
number of seven to clinch the NL Central and left Thursday with the
number at two.

"We're closing in on the finish line,'' manager Tony La Russa
said. "Our boys can smell it.''

Scott Rolen hit his fourth homer in three games as the Cardinals
beat the Colorado Rockies 12-6 for their 13th win in the last 15

By sweeping the three-game series while division runner-up
Houston was losing two of three to Milwaukee, the Cardinals
increased their lead to 8½ games. St. Louis has 10 games remaining
and Houston nine, and those teams begin a three-game series Friday
at Busch Stadium.

"We all can feel it,'' said second baseman Fernando Vina, who
had three hits and two RBI.

"It's been a tough year for us with the tragedies and the
things that have happened. We've got to keep going hard so we can
finish it up at home. When it happens, it's going to be something
real special.''

The Cardinals used the same formula to win all three games here
-- jump out to an early lead, let it get close, then use a big
inning late in the game to clinch it.

After Colorado cut the deficit to 7-6, Eli Marrero, Jim Edmonds
and Albert Pujols hit consecutive solo homers in the eighth off
Todd Jones. Wilson Delgado capped the five-run inning with a
two-run double.

"If you told me 10 days ago when we started this trip that we
would go 8-2 and get the magic number down to two, I would have
said we would have had to play really great ball every game,'' La
Russa said. "And that's what we've done.

"In the end, we just made a lot of things happen in this
series. I think everybody who played did something good. It was a
great series for us.''

Jason Simontacchi (11-5) allowed four runs and six hits in six
innings to earn the win and outduel fellow rookie Jason Jennings.

La Russa said Simontacchi "did exactly what he's been doing.
He's competitive as heck and tough with men on base. He helps
himself with his fielding and his hitting and his running.''

Simontacchi called it "a darn good road trip. We swept
Milwaukee, won two of four from Houston and then swept here. We're
playing good defense, our bats are alive and we're pitching well in
and out of the pen. That's all you can ask for.''

Jennings (16-8) failed in his third attempt at his 17th win,
which would tie the Colorado single-season record set by Kevin Ritz
in 1996 and equaled by Pedro Astacio in 1999. Jennings allowed six
runs -- four earned -- and 10 hits in five innings.

"St. Louis has a better team than us and more depth,'' Rockies
manager Clint Hurdle said. "We wouldn't go away. We were resilient
enough to kept coming back, but every time we'd land a punch they'd
land two more.''

Jennings walked the bases loaded in the first and appeared to
have gotten out of the jam, but second baseman Brent Butler booted
Tino Martinez's two-out grounder, allowing two runs to score.

Vina had an RBI single in the second, and Rolen hit his 28th
homer in the third to make it 4-1.

The Rockies, who got a run in the second on Larry Walker's
double and Jack Cust's RBI single, tied it in the third on Greg
Norton's three-run double. Jennings and Juan Pierre both singled,
and Walker walked to load the bases. Norton cleared the bases with
a double down the right-field line.

St. Louis went ahead 6-4 in the fourth, again capitalizing on a
Colorado error. Simontacchi singled and scored on Vina's triple.
Norton leaped high to grab Marrero's chopper to third base, but his
throw to first was wild, allowing Vina to score.

Pinch-hitter Ivan Cruz made it 7-4 with an RBI single in the

In the Rockies half, pinch-hitter Ben Petrick hit a two-run
homer off Jeff Fassero. It was Petrick's third homer in two games.

Game notes
Walker left the game in the fourth with soreness in his
left shoulder, an injury that has bothered him most of the month.
... The Cardinals hit three consecutive homers for the second time
this season. They also did it July 2 against San Diego. ... St.
Louis is 13-5 in its last 18 road games. ... The Cardinals have had
big innings in the latter stages of their last three games, scoring
seven runs in the eighth on Tuesday and five runs in the ninth on
Wednesday. ... The 12 runs and 18 hits matched season highs for the
Cardinals. ... Colorado's Jay Payton, out since Sept. 11 when he
strained his right oblique muscle, pinch-hit in the ninth.