ST. LOUIS — The Cardinals blasted their way into the history books on Wednesday night, while also pushing themselves closer to securing a return trip to the postseason.
Home runs by David Freese and Yadier Molina were more than sufficient to back starter Lance Lynn, whose resurgence in the rotation extended for at least another turn.
St. Louis assured itself of a series win with a 5-0 victory over the Astros in front of 39,062 at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals have won three straight for the first time this month and hold a two-game lead over the Dodgers for the second National League Wild Card spot. The Brewers, who beat Pittsburgh for the second straight night on Wednesday, sit 2 1/2 games behind.
“I think we’re calm, we’re relaxed and we’re confident,” Freese said. “We’re having just as much fun as we had last year. We know what’s at stake. There are a lot of teams involved for that second playoff spot.”
The Cardinals pushed their season home run count to 149 with the pair of early blasts, which staked St. Louis to a three-run lead. Freese plated the first two when, with the count full and out one in the second, he drove a pitch over the center-field wall. Allen Craig led off the inning with a single.
With the long ball, Freese joined Carlos Beltran (29), Matt Holliday (27) and Craig (21) as members of the team’s 20-homer club this season. Freese had long ago passed his previous career high of 10, which was established during an injury-interrupted 2011 season.
“I think when you’ve never reached it and you’re a guy trying to solidify himself, I think it’s the number everybody else looks at,” Freese said of reaching the 20-homer milestone. “It’s nice to get to that number for sure.”
Molina wouldn’t be left behind.
Two innings after Freese went deep, Molina also hit his 20th. Molina’s blast gives the Cards five 20-homer hitters for the first time in franchise history. No other National League team has achieved the feat this season. Only two American League clubs have done so.
“That’s a pretty impressive statistic,” manager Mike Matheny said. “There is a long, rich history of tradition here. I think that’s the kind of team we’ve really been. We’ve been a team that puts it in people’s mind that if you back off at any second, you have quite a few guys here who can put it over the fence.”
Like Freese, the achievement was a first for Molina, who had never hit more than eight home runs in a season before connecting for 14 last year. He joins Ted Simmons as the only catchers in franchise history to hit at least 20 in one year.
“I can’t lie. I feel so good,” said Molina, who reached base three times. “I’ve never hit 20 before. It does feel good. To get the win feels better. It was a good night for the Cards.”
The homers came against Astros starter Lucas Harrell, who recently became the eighth Astros rookie to reach double-digit wins. Harrell had allowed only two homers in his previous 12 starts combined.
“You can’t make a mistake to a team like this,” Astros interim manager Tony DeFrancesco said. “The middle of the lineup you’ve got guys with 29 homers, there’s 20, there’s 19. It’s a powerful offense that if you make a mistake they’re going to hurt you. They’re guys not only looking to pull, but to spray the ball all over the field.”
Before the Cardinals tacked on a pair of insurance runs in the eighth, Lynn outdueled Harrell with 6 1/3 scoreless frames. Plugged back into the rotation last week because of an injury to Jake Westbrook, Lynn is making a strong case to stay as a starter.
Showcasing simplified mechanics, Lynn limited Houston to three hits and two walks. He struck out five and became the Cardinals’ first 16-game winner of 2012. Only four other National League pitchers hit that win total before Lynn, who is nearing the end of his first full season in the Majors.
“I feel good,” Lynn said. “I learned some things down in the bullpen and I’m back to being who I am.”
With Westbrook getting healthy, Lynn’s immediate future remains undefined beyond this point. But regardless of whether the Cardinals call upon him to make another start or assist out of the bullpen, the club has to be excited by the right-hander’s recent turnaround.
In the six starts Lynn made from July 27 to Aug. 24, Lynn averaged less than five innings and posted a 7.31 ERA. That was enough for St. Louis to boot him from the rotation. A six-appearance stay in the ‘pen followed, during which Lynn focused heavily on smoothing out his delivery. For the first time in his career, he completely eliminated his over-the-head motion.
“I cut that out because it was an unnecessary movement,” Lynn explained. “When you have an unnecessary movement, sometimes it’s hard to sync it up.”
Lynn took pointers from teammates on how to better rein in his emotions while on the mound and also adjusted his physical conditioning program. All combined, the payoff has been tremendous.
There’s not been a substantial sample size since, but nevertheless, in Lynn’s two starts since moving back into the rotation, he’s allowed one run in 12 1/3 innings.
“I think he got a little loose [in his mechanics] right before he went to the ‘pen,” Matheny said. “You’re seeing quicker times. You’re seeing repeated pitches. All that is due to the fact that he didn’t go down to the bullpen and sulk. He figured out how to make himself better.”
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It’s Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.