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Astros 0.5 game back in wild-card

HOUSTON (AP) -- Reggie Sanders slid into home plate, kicking up a
cloud of dirt and chalk.

When the dust cleared, the Houston Astros had stopped St. Louis
from scoring and were on their way to a critical 2-1 win over the
Cardinals on Tuesday night.

Houston moved within a half-game of Chicago and San Francisco
for the NL wild-card lead.

Carlos Beltran threw out Sanders from center field, completing a
fifth-inning double play before scoring the go-ahead run in the
bottom of the inning.

"I knew it was a do-or-die play," Beltran said. The throw
"was a little bit off-line, but Brad did a good job of bringing it
back. I don't know if (Sanders) was out or not."

Sanders and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa vigorously protested
the call to no avail.

"I couldn't tell whether he scored or not," Houston catcher
Brad Ausmus said. "The dirt and the chalk was coming up in my
face. It was flying everywhere. I haven't seen a replay and I
couldn't tell whether the call was right."

Replays appeared to show Sanders was safe.

"The umpire was right on top of it," La Russa said. "You play
nine innings, that's just one out. It looked to me like Reggie beat
it."

Beltran led off the bottom of the fifth with a triple to deep
center -- the ball landed on the uphill slope near the wall -- and
scored on Jeff Bagwell's fly.

Bagwell also drove in Houston's other run, and Brandon Backe
pitched five solid innings to send the Astros to their fifth win in
six games. The Astros tied a franchise record with their 14th
straight home win, equaling a mark set in 1980.

"After a game like tonight," Backe said, "you can't help but
think we're on fire and things are going our way."

St. Louis third baseman Scott Rolen went 0-for-3 in his return
after missing 16 games with a strained upper left calf and bruised
left shin.

Backe (4-3), used primarily as a reliever this season, gave up a
homer to Larry Walker in the second. He allowed five hits, struck
out three and walked three -- and also singled in the third, raising
his batting average to .286.

"I just felt confident going out there tonight," Backe said.
"I did enough to get the win. I didn't want to be the person to
screw this up."

Chad Qualls pitched two scoreless innings, Dan Miceli got two
outs in the eighth and Brad Lidge got four outs for his 26th save
in 30 chances.

Lidge spent much of the night staring at the scoreboard in left
field before taking the mound and retiring St. Louis' 3-4-5-6
hitters to finish the game.

"Sitting in the bullpen, you can't help but see the scores,"
Lidge said. "We're so close now, we can taste it."

Bagwell drove in Backe with a third-inning single.

The Astros missed a chance to add more runs with the bases
loaded and no outs in the eighth.

Morgan Ensberg hit a grounder to third baseman Hector Luna, who
threw out Bagwell at home. Lance Berkman inexplicably hesitated
before running to third and was thrown out for a double play. Jose
Vizcaino then flied out to center to end the inning.

The game started as an impressive duel between two inexperienced
pitchers, Backe and Dan Haren.

Haren (3-3) allowed two runs on six hits in five innings in his
fifth career start. He had a career-high six strikeouts with a
walk.

"He didn't deserve to be a loser," La Russa said. "He pitched
outstanding. I thought he handled himself well."
^Notes:@ The Astros clinched the best September winning percentage
in franchise history. ... Houston leads the season series against
St. Louis 9-8.