MILWAUKEE -- The math is getting good for the team with baseball's best record.
John Lackey pitched seven scoreless innings on only 88 pitches, Matt Carpenter and Tommy Pham combined for five hits and five runs scored from the top two spots in the lineup and the Cardinals earned a 6-3 win over the Brewers on Thursday night to complete a three-game sweep at Miller Park.
It marked the second straight day that the National League Central-leading Cardinals gained a full game on the second-place Pirates, who now sit five games back with only 16 left in the regular season. The Cards' magic number to clinch a postseason spot is down to two, while their magic number to clinch the division title is 10.
"I don't think we were ever panicking," Lackey said. "It is always nice to be playing good baseball. We definitely had a stretch where we weren't playing up to our capabilities, but this series was a great group effort. It was good baseball."
Carpenter homered in the sixth inning, but the Cardinals did the bulk of their scoring early against Brewers right-hander Jimmy Nelson, who exited under his own power in the top of the third after being struck in the head by Pham's line drive. Nelson was charged with four earned runs and lost his third straight start.
The Brewers made things a bit interesting in the ninth inning when Jean Segura connected against Mitch Harris for a three-run home run with two out.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Setting the tone: The Cardinals jumped on Nelson to quickly build a 2-0 lead. Carpenter led off with a single and came around to score on a triple into the right-field corner by Pham. After Jason Heyward tapped back to Nelson, Jhonny Peralta hit a sacrifice fly to right to score Pham. St. Louis extended its lead to 5-0 with a three-run third inning. More >
"Tonight the offense helped out a lot," Lackey said. "Any time you step out there with a lead, that's a nice feeling. I was trying to pound the strike zone and get those guys back in there to hit because they were really swinging the bats well."
Nelson scare: Pham's third-inning line drive came off the bat at 108 mph, according to Statcast™, making it the second-hardest hit to that point of the game, one tick below Kolten Wong's second-inning single over the mound. It struck Nelson on the right side of the head and caromed into foul ground for an RBI double, with Pham reaching second base at approximately the same time athletic trainers arrived on the mound to tend to Nelson. The 26-year-old was transported to a local hospital for evaluation. More >
"It was a tough night all around," said David Goforth, who entered in emergency relief and managed four innings. "Ultimately, I'm just glad that at the end of the day, he's OK."
Welcome back: Pinch-hitting for first baseman Matt Adams, Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday struck out swinging to end the seventh inning. It was Holliday's first at-bat since being activated from the disabled list on Tuesday. Holliday missed 44 games after aggravating his strained right quad on July 29 against the Rockies. The 35-year-old worked the count full before swinging through a 78-mph changeup from Brewers left-hander Cesar Jimenez. More >
"For Matt, it was just getting him initiated back into the game," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "He had a couple of nice swings. It is just timing is going to take a little while. It is good to have him back."
Crew miscues: Nelson's scare came amid an ugly portion of the game for the Brewers, who were charged with three errors in the game, including a pair in the third inning charged to center fielder Shane Peterson. The Brewers were spared a fourth error when Segura's eighth-inning bobble was ruled a hit.
"We made some sloppy mistakes," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "I said this earlier in the season, too: It's important that we continue to play the right way. If we're playing good and we get beat, I'm OK with that. I'm not OK with sloppy play. We're playing good teams right now, and we know we have to play a very good baseball game to beat these teams."
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
The Cardinals have won 30 of the last 41 matchups between these teams at Miller Park, (including the 2011 postseason) and 54 of their last 78 games against the Brewers overall.
"No matter what you have in front of you, you have an opportunity to play a Major League Baseball game. We've done a good job of [maintaining focus] this season, but we have to do it on every pitch." -- Counsell
WHAT'S NEXT Cardinals: Right-hander Lance Lynn (11-10, 3.17 ERA) will get the ball on Friday at 1:20 p.m. CT for the opener of a three-game set against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Facing Chicago earlier this month, Lynn was chased after just 2 1/3 innings. He's lost all three of his starts vs. the Cubs this season.
Brewers: Right-hander Zach Davies (1-1, 6.60) will start the opener of a three-game home set against the Reds on Friday at 7:10 p.m. CT. Davies will be making his fourth start of the season.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast. Andrew Gruman is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.