A combination of strong starting pitching and the home run ball -- the two hallmarks of St. Louis' excellent April -- provided a 4-3 Cards win over the Reds at Great American Ball Park. St. Louis snapped a three-game losing streak and ended the Reds' run of five straight wins. The Cardinals inched their lead atop the National League Central back to 1 1/2 games.
A defeat would have knocked the Cardinals out of first place for the first time in 2010. Instead, they reasserted their place atop the division.
This time it was Jaime Garcia offering up the quality start, turning in 6 1/3 strong innings, and Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick with the thunder. Garcia's start was the best by a Cardinals pitcher since Adam Wainwright five days earlier, and the homers were the club's first since May 3. Not coincidentally, the Cards went 2-7 over the nine-game homerless stretch.
It all looked a lot like the first series of the season, when the Cards got quality starting pitching and knocked the ball around the yard against the same opponent at the same ballpark.
"I think we were definitely aware of [first place being on the line]," Ludwick said. "I read their paper today and I think a lot has been made of first place. It's the middle of May. Every game is a big game. Obviously, this one has bigger implications because they could have taken over first place with a win tonight, but we just have to come here and keep doing our job. Our theory all year long has been to try to win each series."
They've done that in large part with starting pitching. Garcia was dominant through six innings on Friday before getting into trouble in the seventh. He struck out six, many of them on a sharp slider that had Reds hitters flailing away. After striking out five or fewer in each of his first four starts this year, Garcia has six or more in three straight. He has turned in a quality start in each of his seven appearances.
Garcia's ERA is a ridiculous 1.42 through seven starts -- the second through eighth starts of his Major League career -- and he seems to be getting better.
"As the season is going on, you feel more comfortable," Garcia said. "This is my first year, my rookie year, and you learn more. You get better. You try to gain more confidence in yourself and learning from all the guys. Learning about the media stuff, and [working] with the catchers and [pitching coach Dave] Duncan and all that."
As much as his pitching, it's Garcia's desire to learn and willingness to listen that has struck his teammates.
"He locates well," Ludwick said. "He doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He sinks it, he cuts it, he's got a slow curveball, a changeup. And he handles himself so well. That's what's really impressive for a young kid. He wants to learn. He's eager to learn. He respects the older guys. He tries to learn from the older guys. He's first-class when it comes to being a baseball player."
With Garcia seemingly cruising, Jonny Gomes doubled to lead off the seventh. Two batters later, on a 2-1 count, Garcia left a fastball up to Drew Stubbs. Stubbs drilled it out of the park to center, and Garcia's game was over. Four relievers finished Garcia's work for him, with Ryan Franklin picking up his eighth save -- and his first since April 26.
Fortunately for Garcia and the Cardinals, they had a little breathing room when Stubbs went deep. An offense that had been kept quiet recently came up with two big hits on Friday. Pujols hit a two-run shot in the third inning that gave the Cardinals the lead, and Ludwick added a two-run jack two innings later for what turned out to be valuable insurance.
"It kind of left me scratching my head on both of them," Reds pitcher Aaron Harang said. "On Albert, I kind of felt like he was up in the air, too. When he hit it, he wasn't sure if it would be another popup or if was going to go out. It looked like it got up in the jet stream or something. ... I've given up enough of those and I've seen enough of those go out of here. It's just part of playing here. You're going to give up your home runs. They had runners on when I did. If you're going to give those up, you're better to give up the solo variety."
The Cardinals are now 5-2 against the Reds on the year.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.