Ankiel ends homer drought as Cards top Astros

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- The day a report linked Rick Ankiel to human growth hormone and the feel-good story of the former pitcher's comeback as an outfielder began to prompt skepticism, he fell into a prolonged slump.

The drought finally ended on Saturday night. Ankiel had three hits and homered for the first time in 17 games, leading the St. Louis Cardinals over the Houston Astros 7-4.

"When I started not hitting good, I think I was pressing a little bit," Ankiel said. "Who wouldn't be?

"But that's over. I just want to come out here and relax and play."

Ankiel had been in a 7-for-55 slump since a Sept. 7 report linking him to HGH in 2004 -- that came the morning after his two-homer, seven-RBI salvo against Pittsburgh. He met with major league baseball officials earlier this month.

"The word I got from them is just keep playing," Ankiel said. "I think I expected them to say that obviously I never violated any rules. But who knows what their agenda is."

Ankiel's skid coincided with the Cardinals' September collapse. St. Louis lost nine games in a row after the report -- the franchise's worst skid since 1980.

"I feel like I saw the ball well and found some holes in the outfield, and got lucky and got one out," Ankiel said. "It felt good."

Fill-in starter Brad Thompson (7-6) threw six sharp innings and Jason Isringhausen got his 30th save.

The Cardinals broke it open with five runs in the seventh, two on pinch-hitter Albert Pujols' single and two on Ankiel's homer off Woody Williams.

Williams was pitching for the first time in nine days after volunteering to go to the bullpen the rest of the season and let the Astros evaluate some young pitchers.

"It put a damper on us," manager Cecil Cooper said. "I think Woody hadn't been out there in a while and had some command issues trying to hit some spots."

Pujols has 98 RBIs in his quest to become the only player to reach 100 RBIs in each of his first seven seasons.

"One hundred RBIs is nice," Pujols said. "How many guys can say they drive in 100 runs every year?

"But I don't want to force it. I want to play real bad but I'll go by the trainers, whenever they think I'm ready to go."

Pujols missed his fourth straight start with a strained left calf muscle, although he took ground balls. Manager Tony La Russa made out two lineup cards -- one with Pujols, the other with Ryan Ludwick in the third slot.

On what should've been an easy double, Pujols trotted to first base. He left for a pinch runner with St. Louis ahead 6-1.

David Eckstein and Ludwick had RBI doubles in the fifth off Matt Albers (4-10) as last year's World Series champions won for only the third time in 17 games. Eckstein and Ludwick each had three hits, a day after the Cardinals were eliminated from postseason contention.

Craig Biggio had a pinch-hit single for his 3,054th hit, moving past Rod Carew into 21st place on the career list. Hunter Pence hit a three-run homer with two outs in the ninth for Houston, which had won three in a row.

The Cardinals beat Albers for the first time in three starts, although they needed 11 hits to score two runs off him in six innings. The rookie righty is 2-1 against the Cardinals and 2-9 against all other teams.

Thompson allowed one run and four hits, and won for the first time as a starter since beating the Royals on June 19. He's mostly been in the bullpen since August, and was optioned to Triple-A Memphis on Aug. 24 before returning with the September callups.

He totaled 5 1/3 innings in his other two starts this month. This one felt more like a start than the previous two, which were more like bullpen games.

"The last two they had the choke collar," Thompson said. "I felt today I actually had a chance to go out there and throw multiple innings."

Game notes
Lance Berkman's home run Friday night extended an unusual streak. He has homered on Sept. 21 for seven straight seasons, tying a major league record set by Lou Gehrig, who did it on June 8 from 1932-38. ... 3B Russell Branyan rejoined the Cardinals a day after he was hospitalized to receive IV fluids for flu-like symptoms. ... Biggio was honored in a pregame ceremony, getting a nice ovation from a sellout crowd. Biggio, who is retiring after the season, will start on Sunday night in his final game in St. Louis. ... Pujols is seven runs shy of a seventh-straight 100-run season. The Cardinals have eight games left. ... Mark Loretta extended his hitting streak to 12 games. ... Ankiel is batting .400 (10-for-25) against the Astros. ... Paid attendance of 46,237 was a regular-season record at year-old Busch Stadium, although there were several thousand no-shows.