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SEA@STL: Wacha fans seven over five frames

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals head into Thursday's finale in a comfortable position atop the National League Central. Although a two-game lead may not seem like a significant margin, it's the largest lead any team in the division has had in two weeks.

Though the relentless NL Central pennant race offers no opportunities for the Cardinals to coast into October, manager Mike Matheny believes there might be a benefit to battling through a tight division right up to the end of the regular season.

"I think history has kind of shown us that's why the Wild Card teams, I believe, in the past have done pretty well. I mean, they're fighting for their lives all the way down to the end," Matheny said. "Could there be a disadvantage? Possibly. Because you're just worn out every night, you're grinding.

"I think it's a fine line for teams that do go on and clinch early, it will be challenging to keep your guys so mentally sharp that they don't miss a beat but also physically give them some rest. That's not something we're going to have to deal with right now. We're going to have to play and keep playing."

The Rockies will send Roy Oswalt to the mound, as the veteran right-hander continues to build his pitch count up after missing nearly two months with a strained left hamstring. A loss Sunday dropped Oswalt to 0-6 with a 7.71 ERA in six appearances (five starts) with the Rockies since they signed him May 2.

"I know his numbers haven't been good, but we think he still has enough to go out there and win games up here," manager Walt Weiss said. "I've seen the ball come pretty good out of his hand at times this year. I just want to get a good look."

Oswalt will go head-to-head with Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha, who picked up his first Major League loss Saturday, surrendering two runs on four hits and a career-high four walks against Seattle. A two-run fifth inning ended Wacha's scoreless-inning streak at 23 2/3 innings, which is the longest such streak by a Cardinals pitcher this season.

Cardinals: Kelly confident calf sprain won't linger
Tests revealed a slight sprain in starter Joe Kelly's sore right calf, and the right-hander is confident he could start Sunday in Milwaukee.

Kelly tossed five scoreless innings Tuesday but was pulled early with tightness in the calf. He returned to his usual routine Wednesday, including a leg workout, and he intends to jog Thursday.

"Personally, I think I could go," Kelly said. "Just something to test out, something you don't want to go out there and not be 100 percent and mess it up worse. There's two starts left, and if I ended up missing one, I'd have one before the playoffs. It's just something you don't want to be going into the playoffs with."

Rockies: Cuddyer exits with arm injuries
Right fielder Michael Cuddyer was removed from Wednesday's game with a left wrist sprain and right arm contusion. He made a diving catch to end the top of the sixth and did not return to the field in the seventh. His status is listed as day-to-day.

Cuddyer was 1-for-3 before his exit. The outfielder leads the NL with a .331 batting average and also has 20 home runs and 81 RBIs. Weiss expressed concern Wednesday that Cuddyer's accomplishments may be diminished because he plays in the hitter-friendly Coors Field.

"I think that's a stigma that's going to be tough to break here," Weiss said. "I think it was different early on. Much has been made of the humidor [where baseballs are stored to keep them from becoming slippery in the Rocky Mountain atmosphere], but I think it's been a factor.

"You look at the numbers, statistically it will show there's been a bit of a change. It's always going to be a great hitters' park, no doubt about it. There are other great hitters' parks in the NL that rarely get talked about."

Worth noting
• A win Wednesday pushed the Cardinals to a season-high 26 games over .500. They trail Atlanta by one game for home-field advantage in the NL.

• The Cardinals have received a Major League-leading 34 wins from rookie pitchers this season.

• The Rockies are 17-13 against NL Central teams this season, including a 10-5 mark at Coors Field.

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