Shannon's Clark wins first game as MLB manager

HOUSTON — The St. Louis Cardinals missed their first chance to win the NL Central. Now, they can clinch it on Thursday without even stepping on the diamond.

Houston rookie Bud Norris shut out St. Louis for the second time and the Astros delayed the Cardinals’ division championship celebration for at least another day with a 3-0 win on Wednesday night.

The magic number for St. Louis dropped to one when the Cubs lost in Milwaukee before this game ended. But Norris (6-3) pitched six shutout innings and Jose Valverde tossed a scoreless ninth for his 24th save.

“They are one win away from clinching this thing, but we definitely wanted to give them a fight,” Norris said. “I think we did.”

The Astros ended the fourth and sixth innings with double plays as the Cardinals continued to have problems with Norris. The right-hander won his major league debut in St. Louis on Aug. 2, allowing two hits in seven shutout innings.

St. Louis can clinch from its hotel in Colorado on Thursday, a day off, if the Cubs lose the opener of a weekend series in San Francisco.

The Cardinals had 25 cases of champagne waiting in the visiting clubhouse at Minute Maid Park and the unopened bottles will travel with the team to Denver.

St. Louis manager Tony La Russa would’ve rather uncorked them in Houston.

“We had a chance to have a perfect night,” he said. “When you don’t do it, it’s disappointing.”

The Cardinals open a series against the Rockies on Friday and are trying to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

Albert Pujols called the division title a minor step toward the team’s main pursuit.

“We can be all happy and excited about clinching and making the playoffs, but our main goal is to get to the World Series,” Pujols said. “That’s just one step we take, almost like a baby step. You have to crawl before you can start walking. We’re crawling right now.”

Carlos Lee drove in two runs for the Astros, who snapped a nine-game losing streak. Houston also earned the first win for interim manager Dave Clark, who replaced the fired Cecil Cooper on Monday.

“It’s awesome,” Clark said. “The guys came out and were ready to go. They did not want them to celebrate here, especially after the Cubs lost. We just went out there, played good baseball got the lead and were able to hold onto it.”

Chris Duncan/The Associated Press