The St. Louis Cardinals benefited from another team's late collapse to make the playoffs and go on to win the World Series last season. They're hoping to avoid being on the other end of that situation this year.
The Cardinals will try to get headed in the right direction during an advantageous portion of schedule that begins Tuesday night against Houston, though the last-place Astros have been playing relatively well of late.
St. Louis (77-70) earned a split of a four-game series in Los Angeles this past weekend to move a game ahead of the Dodgers for the second NL wild-card berth, winning 5-2 in 12 innings Sunday.
"We haven't been playing too well lately, but we've been playing hard," outfielder Jon Jay said. "Every game from here on out is our most important game. We've been there before, so we know what we've got to do. It's just a matter of doing it."
The Cardinals have gone 6-13 in their last 19 and 3-8 in their past 11 - struggles reminiscent of Atlanta's 8-18 finish to 2011, which allowed St. Louis to clinch the wild card on the final day of the season.
The Cardinals appear to have a great opportunity to avoid following the same path with nine straight games against the two bottom teams in the NL Central. After hosting the Astros, they'll play six on the road against Chicago and Houston.
While the Astros (48-99) are in danger of surpassing the franchise record of 106 losses set last year, they've won six of 10 after taking three of four from Philadelphia, which came to town with a seven-game winning streak.
Houston is on the verge of winning three in a row for the first time since a four-game run May 21-25.
"The guys don't quit," interim manager Tony DeFrancesco told the team's official website. "It seems like they've got some life and some fire."
St. Louis, though, has won five straight in the series and eight of 10 meetings at Busch Stadium after a three-game sweep Aug. 21-23.
The Cardinals will try to continue that success with help from Kyle Lohse (14-3, 2.81 ERA). The right-hander has given up three or fewer runs in 17 of his past 19 starts but had an eight-game win streak snapped with a 3-2 loss to San Diego on Wednesday.
He allowed three runs over six innings while striking out eight.
"Those are the starts we need to capitalize on," manager Mike Matheny told the team's website. "Certainly, he did what he could do."
Lohse has gone 3-1 with a 2.00 ERA in his last four starts against Houston, and 5-2 with a 2.06 ERA in seven home matchups with the Astros since signing with St. Louis before the 2008 season, in which he won a career-high 15 games.
The Astros will send out Fernando Abad (0-4, 5.08) for his fifth career start, all since joining the rotation in late August. The left-hander gave up one run in 3 1-3 innings against Chicago on Wednesday and suffered a 5-1 defeat.
Plagued by high pitch counts in all of his starts, Abad has not pitched more than 4 1-3 innings in any of them and has taken the loss each time.
"Abad is going to have to battle," DeFrancesco told the team's website. "We're trying to get him to make quality pitches."
St. Louis first baseman Allen Craig is riding a 10-game hit streak and has gone 7 for 19 with six RBIs in his last four contests. He's a career .439 hitter against the Astros and has batted .462 in eight all-time matchups at home.
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