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HOU@MIL: Estrada fans 11 in eight shutout frames

MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers lived to fight another day in the National League Wild Card race.

Marco Estrada pitched a career-high eight innings, Corey Hart homered twice and the Brewers cruised to a 9-5 win over the Astros at Miller Park on Saturday night that was not nearly as close as the final score indicated.

The nail-biter was down in St. Louis, where the Cardinals tied the Nationals in the ninth inning before falling in the 10th, 6-4, and extending the Brewers' bid for the second NL Wild Card by at least one more day. The Cardinals are trying to hold on, and the Brewers are four games back with four to play and the Dodgers in the way.

That none of the televisions in the Brewers' postgame clubhouse showed the Cardinals game spoke volumes about Milwaukee's impossibly long odds. But that did not stop manager Ron Roenicke from correcting a reporter who referred to Estrada making his last start of the year.

"I hope it's not the last," Roenicke said.

The way the Brewers have played over the past six weeks, you cannot blame them for wanting the season to continue.

They were 12 games under .500 on Aug. 19. On Saturday, they logged their 81st victory and ensured at least a .500 finish.

After back-to-back losses on Thursday and Friday, they came out swinging Saturday night against Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel. Aramis Ramirez and Hart hit back-to-back home runs in a four-run second inning, Hart hit a three-run homer in the third and Ramirez added an insurance RBI in the fourth to back Estrada, who logged the fourth double-digit strikeout game of his career and held the Astros scoreless on four singles.

Estrada walked one batter versus 11 strikeouts, and retired the final 12 batters he faced, seven of them on strikeouts, and exited after throwing 114 pitches in -- with respect to Roenicke -- his final 2012 regular season start.

"To finish the regular season like that, it was amazing," Estrada said.

But he did not simply cruise through the game. Estrada admitted he "wasn't all there" mechanically in the first four innings.

The manager noticed.

"The beginning of the game, I know he threw up some zeroes, but he was in trouble every one of those innings," Roenicke said. "The leadoff hitter was on [in innings] two, three, four, five, and then in the sixth, seventh and eighth, his command got way better. His fastball got better. Curveball got better. I'm glad he finished up that way, because I thought it was going to be a struggle to finish today."

So what happened?

"'Kranny' [pitching coach Rick Kranitz] kind of came in and yelled at me," Estrada said. "He got on me a little bit, and that shook me up. I was trying too hard early. He told me, 'Relax. Let's go.' Obviously, the eight runs helped a lot." Ramirez put Milwaukee on the scoreboard with a home run leading off the second inning and Hart followed with a homer of his own, giving the Brewers their 10th pair of back-to-back home runs this season.

Norichika Aoki added a two-run single in that inning and the Brewers piled on in the third, scoring three more on Hart's opposite field homer, his 30th of the season.

Hart has been playing through a painful left foot injury and openly winced as he circled the bases.

"I forget about it when he's hitting the way he does, and then I watch him run the bases and I go, 'Oh, yeah,'" Roenicke said.

Hart said he'll keep on playing.

"When I jog, it's a lot easier," he said. "So it was easier tonight. I'll go as long as I can."

Keuchel was out of the game two batters later, and would have endured more damage if not for a spectacular diving catch in center field by Brandon Barnes, who started an inning-ending double play. Ramirez added another RBI with an infield hit in the fourth inning for an 8-0 Brewers lead.

"I came out in the first inning and was pretty much lights out and it really didn't transition to the second inning," Keuchel said. "That kind of bit me in the butt."

Estrada made the lead stand, allowing only two runners to second base, one of whom (Barnes in the third inning) was doubled off by Rickie Weeks after a terrific leaping catch and the other (Scott Moore in the fourth inning) whom Estrada picked off.

Even at 114 pitches after eight innings, Estrada argued hard to return for the ninth. Roenicke said no.

"I don't want to do that to him," Roenicke said. "If he had a quick inning he would be all right, but if you start getting up to 130 pitches, I wouldn't want to do that"

Estrada might have fared better than veteran right-hander Livan Hernandez, who gave up five runs on three homers before Jose Veras came in and got the final out.

The Brewers will be back Sunday with rookie Mike Fiers on the mound, facing the same challenge. Win, and get a whole lot of help.

"We've had a few letdowns," Hart said. "So to get the early lead and bang the ball around tonight was nice for us. It gave Marco a cushion, and he was great tonight."

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