ST. LOUIS -- In order to even their series against the Brewers and keep pace in a crowded National League Wild Card race, the Cardinals supported their most reliable starter with their most reliable form of offense.
With all of their runs coming via third-inning homers, the Cardinals flipped a three-run deficit into a 4-3 win at Busch Stadium on Friday night to stay within 1/2 game of the Mets for the second Wild Card spot. The Cardinals have now taken 12 of the 17 games played against Milwaukee this season.
Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez, who had allowed five runs in his previous four starts combined, found himself trailing by three after allowing six hits over the first three innings. The most costly was a two-run, third-inning blast by Scooter Gennett, who had already walked and scored in the first.
"During the first three innings, he was under some stress, but he continued to make good pitches when he had to, when he got up against the wall," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Martinez. "In the fourth I think he turned a corner."
He also pitched with a lead for the first time in the fourth, as the Cardinals erased the early deficit with two mighty swings. After Martinez became the first Cardinal to reach base against Brewers starter Jimmy Nelson, Matt Carpenter lined a homer over the right-field wall. An eight-pitch walk by Kolten Wong pushed the inning to Stephen Piscotty, who upped his tally of two-out RBIs to 36 with his 21st home run of the season.
"It didn't speed up on me or anything like that," Nelson said. "They did their jobs right there. … it's definitely frustrating to give up a lead."
The Cardinals, who lead the NL with 204 home runs, have now produced 46 percent of their season runs with the long ball. They have already hit more homers this season than any NL club since the 2009 Phillies (224).
Given a lead, Martinez (14-7) settled in. With the defense turning three double plays behind him and Piscotty running down a fly ball to save a run-scoring hit, Martinez finished seven innings to secure his team-leading 18th quality start. He has won four straight starts.
"In the offseason and all season long I prepared for September, for these months when there could be a postseason" said Martinez. "This is where you have to test yourself and give it your all."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Two-for-one: Martinez entered the night leading all NL pitchers with 30 double plays induced this season. The Cardinals turned another three behind him to squash Milwaukee rallies. Martinez's first double play helped him work through a scoreless second inning that opened with consecutive singles. In the third, second baseman Wong provided the defensive highlight of the night when he made a backhanded stop on Domingo Santana's grounder up the middle and then flipped the ball with his glove to start an inning-ending twin killing. Nelson bunted into a double play an inning later.
"I have athletic ability, and I let it take over," Wong said of his glove flip. "I understand that I can make that play. I do it in [batting practice] all the time. I knew Santana could run pretty well, so I had to get rid of it as quickly as I could. That was the fastest way I could do it."
"That's something Martinez has been really good at this year," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "He's been good at getting ground balls when he needs them. That's part of what makes him tough."
First strike: "I think he's had better seasons in the past," Counsell said earlier in the day of Gennett, whose on-base and slugging percentages have slumped in the second half as he plays his final games before arbitration. But he boosted both figures in the third inning when he smacked a 3-1 pitch for two-run home run off Martinez for a 3-0 Brewers lead, pushing Gennett's career-high homer count to 11. It was his first career home run against the Cardinals.
"His stuff is pretty much consistent, it's just if he's getting behind guys," said Gennett, comparing Martinez's 13-strikeout performance at Miller Park 11 days earlier to Friday's outing, when he whiffed only one. "Today, early on, he was getting behind guys."
Self help: Nelson retired the first eight batters he faced before Martinez interrupted that stretch with a two-out, third-inning single. That hit sparked the team's four-run third inning. The single was Martinez's 13th hit this year, a total that ranks third-most among all NL pitchers. He's hit safely in 11 of his 27 starts.
"Every time I'm at bat, I try to help my team that way and support them that way," Martinez said. "When I got the hit I saw what it did for the team, and I really take pride in that. Every time I go up to bat, I really try to do that."
Keeping it close: If Wong's up-the-middle stop in the third inning was the play of the game, Brewers third baseman Jonathan Villar delivered a worthy runner-up at a critical moment in the 8th. With Milwaukee reliever Jhan Marinez facing a two-on, one-out jam and the crowd stirring on support of Yadier Molina, Villar made a diving stop of a grounder and initiated a 5-4-3 double play to end the inning. It kept the Brewers within a run of the Cardinals entering the ninth.
"That play in the eighth was spectacular," Counsell said. "That was one of the better double plays we've turned on the infield."
"There's not ever one answer in this game to anything, whether it's hitting or pitching. You don't want to overthink it. You don't want to think there's something wrong and start over-analyzing stuff." -- Nelson, reflecting on his 0-7 record with a 7.34 ERA in eight starts plus one relief appearance against St. Louis
"I think I'm just tired of people thinking that I'm not that good. I believe in myself to the fullest and I play this game the way I do because I believe in myself. I got over hearing what people were saying about me and how my season has been going. ... I know I'm not having the season that I wanted, but I can always help the team out somehow." -- Wong, who has reached safely in his last 12 starts More >
WHAT'S NEXT Brewers:Chase Anderson, 4-1 with a 2.65 ERA over his last eight starts despite completing six innings only once in that span, takes the mound for Milwaukee on Saturday at 6:15 p.m. CT. He's pitched well against the Cards this season, with a 3.14 ERA in three starts.
Cardinals: This four-game series continues Saturday at 6:15 p.m. CT, with Adam Wainwright drawing the start for St. Louis. Though Wainwright has won just one of his last nine starts, he has long had success against the Brewers. In 34 career appearances versus Milwaukee, Wainwright is 13-8 with a 2.20 ERA.