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MILWAUKEE -- Dave Bush finally looked like himself again. Too bad he matched up against a Cardinals ace who looked like himself, too.
Bush pitched seven quality innings in his third start off the disabled list, but National League Cy Young Award candidate Chris Carpenter twirled a complete-game one-hitter in a 3-0 Cardinals win at Miller Park on Monday afternoon.
Middle-of-the-order sluggers Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday provided the offense, Pujols lining a two-run double in the fifth inning and then scoring on Holliday's single in the eighth as St. Louis moved closer to clinching the NL Central.
"We didn't present a threat, for the most part," Brewers manager Ken Macha said.
Milwaukee's lone hit belonged to right fielder Jody Gerut, who sliced an opposite-field double to the left-field corner in the fifth. The Brewers fielded a lineup without Ryan Braun and Mike Cameron, but it probably didn't matter against Carpenter (16-3), who walked only two and matched a season high with 10 strikeouts.
"That's Nintendo ball," Gerut said. Video gamers will understand what Gerut meant, but for the others, Gerut continued.
"That's as good of stuff as I've seen this year, with the exception of that tough first start in Spring Training when you haven't seen pitching. He throws strikes with electric stuff."
Carpenter won his 11th consecutive decision and improved to 9-0 this year against NL Central opponents, but the division race has become elementary. The second-place Cubs won Monday to keep pace with the Cardinals, but still sit 11 1/2 games back. The third-place Astros also won to remain 14 games back and the Brewers slipped back to five games under .500 and into fourth place, 15 games behind the division leaders.
The Brewers have had to contend with Carpenter twice in six days. He appeared much more beatable on Wednesday at Busch Stadium, when he allowed three runs on eight hits and three walks. The Brewers rued their missed opportunities in a 10-3 loss.
"I believe I mentioned after the game that Carpenter didn't have his best stuff that particular night," Macha said. "Well, we saw it today."
The Brewers only hit a handful of Carpenter's pitches hard. Frank Catalanotto, who was 8-for-16 against Carpenter lifetime before going 0-for-4 Monday, flew out to deep center field in the fourth inning. Jason Kendall was robbed of a hit in the fifth inning by third baseman Troy Glaus. And Carpenter snared a well-struck Felipe Lopez line drive that was destined for center field leading off the seventh.
In the bottom of the fifth with one out, Gerut hit a first-pitch fastball that registered 96 mph. It rattled around the left-field corner for an easy double.
"It was a good pitch," Carpenter said. "I was trying to get ahead, first-pitch strike down and away. The ball got up a little bit, but it was out there and he put a good swing on it and got it in the corner."
Otherwise, the Brewers went quietly.
"It was really a clinic on how to move your fastball around," Macha said. "He cut the ball in to lefties, cut the ball away from righties. He was sinking the ball away from lefties. ... And he mixed his curveball in. He threw a complete game in under 100 pitches."
For the record, Carpenter threw 99 pitches, 64 for strikes.
Carpenter's gem spoiled the day for Bush, whose availability was actually in doubt last week after he surrendered eight runs on 11 hits during a loss in St. Louis and complained of pain in his right triceps. He looked strong in seven innings of his rematch against the Cardinals, allowing only two runs on seven hits with no walks and three strikeouts.
It was a dramatic improvement for Bush, who was touched for 13 runs in eight innings in his first two starts following a two-month DL stint. Dr. William Raasch assured him that the discomfort he felt in his arm was part of the healing process.
"Definitely, being more comfortable mentally helps," Bush said. "It's been a difficult process to get back to the way I want to feel on the mound."
Said Macha: "If Bush feels better, I'll feel better."
Bush was one out away from escaping a jam in the fifth, in which the Cardinals had runners at second and third with two outs. With first base open, Pujols due to hit and the equally dangerous Holliday on deck, Bush elected to engage with Pujols, who lined a low fastball to straightaway center field for a double and a 2-0 St. Louis lead.
"I wanted to pitch to him," Bush said. "Walking Albert to face Holliday with the bases loaded isn't necessarily that much better of a situation, with no room for error. I went after him. [I] just didn't make exactly the pitch I wanted to make."
The Pujols-Holliday battery has burned the Brewers before. On Tuesday in a game tied at 4, Macha ordered an intentional walk of Pujols ahead of Holliday's three-run home run.
With that recent history in mind, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said he wouldn't have walked Pujols on Monday, either.
"What do you do then?" he asked. "You've got Matt Holliday coming up, who's hitting .400. There's no place to put him, so now you've got to throw the ball over the plate. Walking the bases loaded, the only time you do that is if you've got a significant edge with the guy on deck. And there's no way Matt Holliday's a big edge."
Pujols' hit gave Carpenter his lead, and despite losing his no-hit bid in the bottom of the same inning, he made it stand.
"He was a little better than I was," Bush said.