By Jenifer Langosch and Alaina Getzenberg
ST. LOUIS -- Riding the momentum of a seven-win road trip, the Cardinals returned home this weekend and promptly completed a statement sweep of the Pirates that pulled them even closer to postseason position. The Cardinals closed out the series by cruising to a 7-0 victory that Yadier Molina punctuated with his five-RBI day at Busch Stadium.
With nine wins in their last 11 days, the Cardinals have crept to within two games of the Cubs, who lead the National League Central, and remained three games back of the Rockies, who are clinging to the NL's second Wild Card spot. St. Louis, which is tied with Milwaukee in the division, hasn't been this close to the division's top spot since Aug. 19.
"I think there's more energy, just due to the fact that we're getting close," Cardinals outfielder Randal Grichuk said. "The division isn't out of reach, and we know we have a chance to win it. And if not, make a Wild Card. We can feel the playoffs aren't too far away, and it's in our grasp."
While Michael Wacha was constructing one of the more dominant starts of his career, Molina built the righty's cushion. The veteran catcher drove home the game's first run with a two-out single in the second, and then delivered a two-out, three-run blast that elicited a curtain call from the home crowd in the third. A seventh-inning sacrifice fly bumped Molina's RBI total to five, matching his career high.
"Whenever the lights come on, that guy comes out and shines," Wacha said. "He's one of the greatest players I've played with."
Molina also helped the Cardinals' pitching staff secure its 12th shutout of the season, a total that trails only the Dodgers.
"The guy is just special in how he goes about his business, how he prepares, how he competes and how he helps. And then he contributes," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Molina. "He's just one of those players who continues to figure out ways to keep himself sharp and his body strong and continue to improve. It's amazing to watch."
The Cardinals' first five runs came off Pirates starter Ivan Nova, who was not sharp, despite pitching on nine days' rest. His 85-pitch afternoon ended after five innings. He has now allowed five or more runs in each of his last three starts after only doing so twice in his first 25 this year.
"There's a couple things you hunt that were good," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Nova. "He punched out seven. There were some swing and miss there. … The inconsistent command challenged him. I saw some better sequences, for sure."
Wacha, on the other hand, faced little resistance as he completed eight scoreless innings for the third time in his career. The Pirates advanced one runner into scoring position against him and never tallied multiple hits in an inning. Wacha, who has now made three consecutive quality starts following a rocky stretch in August, completed eight innings on 95 pitches, and added a sacrifice fly to help his own cause.
"[I was] just trying to go out there and have the best start to get a win for this club," Wacha said. "It's that time of the year where you're trying to make the playoffs, and every game matters."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED A hustle and a homer: First baseman Jose Martinez kept the third inning alive by beating out what could have been an inning-ending double-play grounder. The payoff then came three pitches later, when Molina crushed his 17th homer of the season. The blast, which traveled 392 feet with an exit velocity of 103.8 mph, was the second of the series for Molina. He has hit seven of those home runs in his last 34 games.
"He's a really good hitter, a smart hitter," Nova said of Molina. "I made a mistake with him, I wanted to go down and away and missed up and in, and he put a good swing on it."
20/20 vision: Grichuk padded the Cardinals' four-run lead with a solo homer in the fourth inning. With the blast, Grichuk joined Paul DeJong as the first two players on the team to reach the 20-homer plateau this season. Sixteen of Grichuk's home runs this season have come when he's batted seventh or lower in the lineup. He hit eighth on Sunday.
"I think it means more considering I struggled to start the year," Grichuk said of reaching the 20-homer mark for a second consecutive season. "It definitely wasn't looking like I was going to get anywhere near that for a while. It feels good, and hopefully I can keep going and continue to climb as we make this playoff push."
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS Andrew McCutchen recorded his 25th double of the year, which gives him nine straight seasons with 25 or more doubles. He has matched Robinson Cano as the only two active MLB players with nine straight, as of Sunday.
WHAT'S NEXT Pirates: The Pirates' nine-game NL Central road trip will continue as they head to Milwaukee on Monday for a three-game series. Left-hander Steven Brault (0-0, 5.79 ERA) will make his second start of the season at 7:40 pm ET. He is 0-2 with a 4.20 ERA in three career starts vs. the Brewers.
Cardinals: The Cardinals will continue their homestand with a three-game series against the Reds that opens Tuesday at 7:15 p.m. CT. St. Louis has altered its rotation to start Lance Lynn in the series opener. In 13 starts since the beginning of July, Lynn has posted a 1.87 ERA.