Astros 9, Cardinals 2

Monday, October 8th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ The Houston Astros let the NL Central race go down to the last game before they finished the job.

Behind Shane Reynolds' 100th career victory, the Astros won their fourth division title in five years by beating the St. Louis Cardinals 9-2 Sunday. The loss left the Cardinals with the wild card spot.

Both teams clinched playoff spots on Friday night, and on Sunday, they were playing for homefield advantage throughout the postseason.

The Astros led by 5 1/2 games on Sept. 24, but lost nine of 11 before winning Sunday. They open at home Tuesday against the Atlanta Braves, and the Cardinals open at Arizona later that day.

It's not that much of an advantage, according to manager Larry Dierker.

``I guess it might be more intimidating to face Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson because they throw harder,'' Dierker said. ``But I don't know of any team that wants to face Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.''

The Astros and Cardinals finished with 93-69 records. Houston won the division because of a head-to-head tiebreaker, going 9-7 against the Cardinals.

The Cardinals didn't seem overly disappointed.

``Today wasn't a do-or-die game where the loser had to go home,'' said 22-game winner Matt Morris, who'll start Game 1 of the playoffs. ``So I don't think we're real upset.''

Despite late-season pitching woes, Houston completed the largest turnaround in franchise history. The Astros were 72-90 last year and fourth in the Central.

The previous best single-season improvement was 18 games from 1997 to '98.

``Our pitching has been better this year,'' Dierker said. ``If you keep giving up runs all the time, it really gets the position players kind of down and it spoils the atmosphere.''

St. Louis, a .500 team at the All-Star game, was 50-26 after the break. The Cardinals won 17 of their last 22 games.

``That's one of the few important games in the second half where we've gotten beat,'' manager Tony La Russa said. ``We couldn't get anything going.''

Richard Hidalgo and Jeff Bagwell hit two-run homers for the Astros off Darryl Kile (16-11).

Hidalgo was 3-for-4, and his 19th homer put the Astros ahead for good, 2-1 in the second, Bagwell doubled off the right-field wall and scored on Lance Berkman's single in the sixth, and Houston put it away with four runs in the seventh to chase Kile.

Craig Biggio had an RBI double and scored on Julio Lugo's single before the two-run homer by Bagwell, who had two crucial throwing errors in the Cardinals' 10-6 victory on Saturday.

``The key for us is we didn't hang our heads when we got behind,'' Bagwell said. ``Offensively, we knew we had a tough pitcher out there, but we concentrated and did our jobs.''

Reynolds (14-11) scattered eight hits in 7 1-3 innings, with the only damage coming on J.D. Drew's 27th homer in the first. He gave up at least one hit in every inning, striking out one and walking none, and won for the fifth time in six decisions.

Kile, who entered the game second in the NL with a 2.90 ERA, allowed more runs than in any of his other 33 starts. He lasted 6 2-3 innings, giving up seven runs on 10 hits and finishing with a 3.09 ERA.

``I let the guys down,'' Kile said. ``That's what it boils down to.''

Mark McGwire flied out as pinch-hitter in the ninth, finishing at .187 with 29 homers, 64 RBIs and 118 strikeouts in 299 at-bats. He struck out all four at-bats Friday night, and on Saturday said he would consider retiring after the season.

He quickly left after Sunday's game without talking to reporters. La Russa said he didn't know how he'd use McGwire in the playoffs.

Notes: The Cardinals were 54-28 at home, tied for the most victories in franchise history. They played 82 home games because they made up a Florida rainout at Busch Stadium. ... St. Louis finished with attendance of 3,113,091, an average of more than 38,000 per game. ... Reynolds is 100-80 in 235 career starts. ... Hidalgo was 1-for-8 the first two games of the series. ... The Astros were outscored 55-29 in the previous eight games, giving up at least 10 runs three times.

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