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HOU@WSH: Harrell hurls 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball

When the Astros see the Cardinals for the first time this season on Friday, their division rivals will look the same as they always do -- with a big exception at first base.

Astros-nemesis Albert Pujols won't be standing there.

Pujols has tremendous career numbers against the Astros, including a .311 batting average and 42 home runs. But now the All-Star first baseman is off the Cardinals' roster and out of the National League altogether. Still, the Astros know the Cards' lineup has plenty of ways to hurt them.

"They [have] other guys they can plug in," said Lucas Harrell, Friday's starter. "They can put [Matt] Carpenter at first, [Yadier] Molina, [David] Freese, [Carlos] Beltran, [Matt] Holliday. So many bats, so many guys still there that can still hit. They may have lost Pujols, but they [have] all these other guys."

Beltran actually didn't start Thursday, but the Cardinals expect him back Friday. Harrell will be matched against veteran Kyle Lohse, and the Astros hurler wants to get his team off to a good start.

"When you open a series, you want to set the tone," said Harrell. "Hopefully I can go out there and get ahead of guys, get a lot of ground balls, use my fastball in and use it out, and get a lot of early contact and go deep into the game. Give our team a chance to win. We've been playing well."

The Cardinals have been pretty hot, as well. When this series concludes, it will mark the end of a stretch of 27 consecutive games against division rivals for St. Louis. The Cards have taken advantage to take control of the NL Central. Now, though, they know they need to keep up the intensity.

"We've been very clear about not thinking any further than today," said manager Mike Matheney. "We realize the guys have played well and to have the advantage to play well against the Central is a nice start. But those kinds of things can go away real fast if you're not careful how you go about it day to day. We'll go to Houston, where they are scoring a lot of runs and playing pretty well."

Cardinals: Berkman not ready just yet
The Cardinals are close to getting Lance Berkman back from the disabled list, but they won't activate him until they're sure he's ready to play. Berkman, sidelined for two weeks by a strained left calf, will be eligible to return for Friday's game, but his status still appears to be doubtful.

Berkman has been able to take batting practice, but still hasn't tested his calf with strenuous running.

"When you're dealing with a muscle injury, it can make rapid improvement and then hit a plateau. You don't know how long it's going to take to get it back to 100 percent," said Berkman. "Right now, I'd say it's probably 85 percent. But before I'm going to go back out there, I'm going to get it as close to 100 percent as possible, because what I don't want to have happen is go out there too soon and end up right back here again. The whole point of this DL stint is to get this totally behind us."

Astros: Altuve not stopping
Diminutive infielder Jose Altuve has picked up where he left off last season by assaulting National League pitching staffs on a regular basis. Altuve batted .389 in the Minors last year and batted .276 after his mid-year promotion to the Majors, and he's taken that tear a step further this year.

Houston's second baseman is batting .358 with a .404 on-base percentage and a .526 slugging mark through his first 24 games, and he's only been held hitless in five of his starts this season. Altuve has had 14 multi-hit games this season, and 11 of his first 34 hits have gone for extra bases.

Worth noting
• Carlos Lee and Lohse have squared off plenty over the course of their careers. Lee has the upper hand, hitting .300 against the St. Louis right-hander, with five home runs and seven doubles.

• Jordan Schafer extended his on-base streak to 24 games Wednesday with a walk in the first inning, but exited in the fifth inning with a back ailment. Schafer had sat out Tuesday due to a strained oblique.

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