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Huff homer breaks open game in Clemens' final home start

Sep 25, 2006 - 4:08 AM HOUSTON (Ticker) -- Even though Roger Clemens didn't get a win in perhaps his final start at Minute Maid Park, his teammates made sure his sacrifice did not go unrewarded.

Eric Bruntlett doubled in the seventh inning and eventually scored on a controversial groundout, and Aubrey Huff followed with a three-run homer as the Houston Astros captured a four-game series sweep over the St. Louis Cardinals with a 7-4 victory.

Brad Ausmus drove in two runs for the Astros (77-78), who whittled four games off the National League Central lead during the set, moving within 3 1/2 games - four in the loss column - of the Cardinals (80-74).

"We're starting to play our best baseball right now," Houston manager Phil Garner said. "I've been saying all along that our best was yet to come. That's the way it's starting to look right now."

"I'm not concerned one bit, though," Cards reliever Randy Flores said. "If we didn't show up in this series, then I'd be concerned, but Houston always plays us tough, and we were in all the games. We will turn it around."

After Houston's 7-2 win over Cincinnati last Wednesday, home fans thought they had seen the last of Clemens, at least for the season, before the decision was made to bring back the seven-time Cy Young Award winner on three days rest to pitch the finale of this critical series.

Clemens put on his typical bulldog performance, yielding a run and four hits in five innings. He walked one and struck out six. Leading, 3-1, the 44-year-old went out to start the sixth but before throwing any pitches,Garner came out of the dugout and motioned for lefthander Wandy Rodriguez. Clemens departed to a standing ovation, then stepped from the dugout and tipped his hat to cheering fans.

"That was a great deal of fun," Clemens said. "The win says a lot about this club. This game had a lot of playoff feel to it. It's kind of like what was happening here last year. I wish we could take these last four crowds with us.

"During my bullpen, I did everything I could to reserve my energy. I did about half of what I normally do, and my arm was heavy tonight to be honest with you."

The Cardinals scored a run off Rodriguez in the sixth and tied the contest in the seventh with a run against Brad Lidge. But Houston regained control in the bottom half of the frame.

Bruntlett led off with a double to left against Josh Hancock (3-3) and moved to third on Craig Biggio's sacrifice. One out later, Lance Berkman grounded to second baseman Ronnie Belliard, who tried to tag Biggio with his bare hand to start a double play. However, Biggio dodged the tag and Bruntlett scored easily for a 4-3 edge.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa argued that Biggio ran out of the baseline, but the ruling on the field stood.

"That was one of the keys to that inning," La Russa said. "I thought he was out of the baseline. I just asked (second base umpire) Angel (Hernandez) if he got a good look at it because it looked to me like he was behind Belliard. He called him safe, so we can't do anything about it."

"I thought that was the only chance I had because it was a slow grounder and tagging Biggio was our only chance to get a double play," Belliard said. "I thought he went out of the base pad, and I tagged him, but things happen in baseball."

Biggio stated his case on the crucial play.

"The only question I guess was whether or not I was in the baseline," Biggio said. "I know (Belliard) never tagged me. I've got five feet either way, and in this park, I knew I was in the baseline."

When play resumed, Luke Scott drew a walk and Huff connected to right field off of Randy Flores, extending the margin to four runs.

"I picked the worst time to give up my most contact to a lefthanded batter," Flores said. "It was 1-0, and I didn't want to get into a 2-0 situation, so I threw an outside breaking ball, but I left it up."

"That's right up there with all of them," said Huff about his three-run home run. "Playing in this kind of environment is very special to me, but we still have a lot of baseball left. The next seven days will tell a lot."

Chad Qualls (7-3) pitched a scoreless 1 1/3 innings to earn the win.

St. Louis starter Jeff Weaver was responsible for three runs and seven hits in six innings. He struck out five while walking two.

Cards shortstop David Eckstein left the game in the fifth due to a left hamstring strain.

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