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Cards try to make impression on Nationals

By Derrick Goold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

ST. LOUIS — Encouraged by catcher Yadier Molina to spend this weekend showing Washington the quality of club they could yet be in the playoffs, the Cardinals followed the lead of a player they know they’ll need and one even they didn’t know they had.

Carlos Beltran, an All-Star with a history of carrying clubs through October, hit two home runs Sunday and Pete Kozma, a rookie defying the little history he had, had three hits as the Cardinals downed Washington 10-4 at Busch Stadium. Beltran had five RBIs and Kozma had three to inch the Cardinals ever closer to the National League’s second wild-card berth.

Lance Lynn struck out nine and earned his 18th win to fortify the Cardinals’ two-game edge on Los Angeles Dodgers with three games remaining on the schedule.

Having lost two in their three-day visit to Busch, the Nationals stayed one victory shy of claiming the NL East title. The Cardinals can clinch a playoff berth as early as today.

“It’s a whole different atmosphere here,” manager Mike Matheny said. “We really didn’t show this Washington team that kind of team we were in Washington that last time. I think we needed that chip on our shoulder.”

That was the message stressed by Molina in a pre-series meeting, according to Matheny and several players. A month ago, the Cardinals visited D.C. and were overwhelmed, outscored 32-11 in four games and reminded of their failings. The Cardinals left Washington on Sept. 2 having lost six of eight and clinging to a half-game lead for the wild card. Kozma made his first start at shortstop in the D.C. series as part of a three-man committee to replace All-Star Rafael Furcal. Beltran prolonged a funk with a .155 average in 19 games and nearly four weeks without a home run.

Sunday was a showcase of how the Cardinals have changed.

Beltran ignited for a home run from each side of the plate and three hits total after a slow burn that began with three walks Friday. Kozma had an RBI in each game vs. Washington; on Saturday he scored two of the Cardinals’ four runs and drove in the other two. Kozma finished September with 14 RBIs, the most in the month by a Cardinals shortstop since Edgar Renteria’s 19 in 2003 and the most by a Cardinals rookie since Albert Pujols’ 25 in 2001.

Coming out of D.C., filling in for Furcal at shortstop was a chief concern because, as one player said, “We didn’t know what we’re going to do.”

“When Rafi went down we kind of had the picture of musical chairs here for a while,” Matheny said. “We had three pieces to put in there and we’d see which one fit. Pete jumped all over it. I don’t explain it, except to me this is who he is. We needed somebody to step up and who would have thought it was going to be Pete Kozma.”

Kozma, the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2007, was first famous because the club took him instead of prep pitcher Rick Porcello, now in Detroit. Kozma advanced steadily, but often unremarkably. A season he’ll end as the Cardinals’ starting shortstop he began with the goal of making him into a utility fielder in Class AAA. He hit .232 there. The best description of the surprise turn this autumn has taken came when he repeated instructions given him a day after Furcal’s elbow injury.

“It was, ‘Expect the unexpected,’” Kozma said.

The unexpected staked the Cardinals to a 2-0 lead in the second inning when Nats second baseman Danny Espinosa botched a routine double-play grounder and left the bases loaded. Washington lefty and Missouri State alum Ross Detwiler (10-8) had no choice but to challenge Kozma, the No. 8 hitter. The rookie poked a two-run double into the right-field corner.

Three batters later Beltran launched a homer, his 31st of the season, for a 5-0 lead. Kozma’s sacrifice fly in the third pushed it to 7-0. Two innings later Beltran homered from the left side to reclaim Lynn a 9-4 lead. It was the first time this season and ninth in his career that the switch-hitter homered from both sides of the plate in the same game.

Lynn weathered a two-homer, four-run fourth inning and blew by the Nats with the nine strikeouts to avoid other trouble in his workmanlike 5 1/3 innings. He closes the regular season with wins in five consecutive appearances and a strong bid for a prominent playoff role. In the four starts since his return to the rotation the righty went 4-0 with a 2.19 ERA. The 10 runs that buoyed Lynn (18-7) gave the Cardinals 26 total against the pitching staff that came into Sunday’s game with the NL’s best ERA (3.34).

Matheny called the rush of runs “good for the psyche.”

“We needed to find a way to play good baseball and go out there and win against teams that if we make it are the teams we’re going to face (in the playoffs),” Beltran said. “I think it was good that we’re able to play good baseball against them. Now we know what they’re all about. They know what we’re all about.

“I would hope that we all get hot as a team.”

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