Fueled by a batch of struggling stars Tuesday night, the St. Louis Cardinals cooled off the red-hot Milwaukee Brewers on the road for a second straight game, proving that they're rediscovering the form that has made them the class of the National League Central in recent years.
Sure, the Brewers, who had won nine games in a row entering the three-game set, still sport the best record in baseball at 10-4. But with Tuesday's 6-1 victory, the Cardinals already have won the series and have a shot to sweep Wednesday. If they do, the two teams would be tied atop the division.
This early litmus-test matchup so far has shown why the Cardinals—the 2013 NL champions—were the preseason front-runners to win the Central before the Brewers went bonkers and became the surprise squad at the start of the season.
While Milwaukee looks like a legitimate contender thanks to a deep and talented lineup featuring the dynamic Carlos Gomez and thumpers Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez, as well as its capable, all right-handed rotation that includes Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza, the Cardinals continued their dominance over their division rivals.
St. Louis has won 26 of the past 35 games between these two clubs, as Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com points out:
It was more of a familiar frustration for the Brewers, who, since being sent home by the Cardinals in the 2011 postseason, have lost 25 of 36 games to the division rival. Though the Cardinals continue to downplay the dominance over a team that had reeled off nine straight wins, it can't be overlooked that St. Louis has a run differential of plus-76 over Milwaukee since Mike Matheny assumed his managerial seat.
It's almost as if the Cardinals, now 9-5, are not-so-subtly using this series to remind folks that they are still, in fact, here. And on Tuesday, a key quartet of slow-starting players did the same.
Prior to the win, St. Louis had received very little production out of some significant members of the lineup, including Allen Craig, Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta, all of whom came up big.
Craig, who was just 6-for-45 (.133) entering Tuesday, notched his first extra-base hit of the season in the third inning to put St. Louis up 2-0.
And then in a still-tight 3-1 contest in the ninth, Holliday (12-for-48, .250) smoked his first home run of the year, a solo shot to dead center that was followed three batters later by Peralta's (6-for-40, .150) two-run rainmaker that put the nail in the Brewers' coffin for the night.
With the offense taken care of, it was up to starter Shelby Miller to handle a dangerous Brewers lineup, especially since he had looked out of whack in his first two turns, allowing eight earned runs on 13 hits over 11.1 frames while losing both.
The right-hander, who was dominant through his first 15 starts of 2013 (2.35 ERA) before faltering some over his final 16 outings (3.87), managed to find himself against a dangerous Brewers lineup that had scored 53 runs during the club's nine-game win streak.
Miller, 23, didn't have the cleanest of beginnings—he walked three of the first six he faced—but settled down to allow only one run (a solo homer by Ramirez) on three hits over six frames while whiffing seven for his first win of 2014.
That formula—strong pitching backed by timely hitting—is what drove the Cardinals to the NL Central crown and a World Series appearance last year. The variables can change from game to game, depending on the starter and the batters who come up with the necessary knocks, but it's a formula that works for a club led by, but not forced to rely solely upon, perennial Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright and MVP-worthy Yadier Molina.
After the final game in Milwaukee Wednesday, the Cardinals' 11-game road trip doesn't get any easier as they head to D.C. to take on the Washington Nationals for four games against a team that was once again a popular preseason pick to be among the best in the NL, if not the best in the NL, this season.
Taking this series from the Brewers, though, and doing it in a very Cardinals way is a reminder that St. Louis—who was the top team in the NL a year ago—still has a claim to that title.
To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11