"It's been gut-wrenching," manager Mike Matheny said of the skid. "As much as we're staying the course, it doesn't mean we're going back and throwing parties. It's something you fall asleep thinking about. You wake up thinking about it, and you wonder what that sick feeling in your stomach is, and you realize it's because we haven't been doing what we're supposed to be doing, what we're paid to do, and that's win ballgames."
Three games in Cincinnati are all that remain in what has thus far been a treacherous road trip. Yet the Cardinals head there on a high, and having breathed a collective sigh of relief.
"You don't want to accept lulls like this past week, but that's part of the game, and it's bound to happen to every team in the league," said Allen Craig, who drove in two and scored twice. "It's what we're going through right now, but I think today was a good sign for our team. There was no panic. We brought a lot of energy, and when you look at what happened today, it's a good thing."
The Cardinals, taking cues from players who had experienced similar downs, arrived at the ballpark with pep. Loud music -- music Matheny jokingly described as "awful" -- played in the clubhouse before the first pitch. There was the usual shouting and smiling and jigging in the dugout.
It was hardly the sign of an uptight team.
"That can be a natural reaction -- 'I'm not allowed to have fun because we're losing,'" Matheny said. "And the opposite is true. You respect what's going on. You respect the fact that everyone is hurt after the game. The next day, you turn the page."
For the second straight game, the Cardinals' offense peppered the Pirates starter (this time Charlie Morton) for 10 hits. On Thursday, though, they had more to show for it and a pitcher who made the support stand. Kelly, a new addition to the rotation, extended his streak of scoreless innings to 15 with six more. After yo-yoing between the bullpen and the rotation, he was extended to a season-high 102 pitches.
It helped that he was starting on a normal four days of rest for the first time all season.
"I didn't want to put too much pressure on myself," Kelly said. "I knew the situation. I didn't want to go out there and be overhyped. I had a lot of energy, and I think I pitch better when I have a lot of focus with that energy."
Kelly kept the Pirates hitless until the fifth, though he did have to work around trouble initiated by his three two-out walks in the second. All three hits he allowed came during a four-batter span; a double play stalled that run-scoring attempt.
"He had just that youthful excitement to him from first pitch," Matheny said. "Joe needs to put this one in his archive. This is who [he] should be."
The Cardinals staked Kelly to a comfortable lead early before taking their week-long frustrations out on the Pirates' pitching staff late. They also rediscovered their knack for hitting with runners in scoring position.
By the end of the night, all eight starting position players had driven in at least one run. Five of those runs scored off Morton, who helped the first two with a wild pitch and a bases-loaded plunking of Jon Jay.
Upon Morton's exit in the seventh, St. Louis exploded for eight runs. With the bases full, Tony Cruz drove home two with the second of his three hits. Pedro Alvarez's error compounded the inning, which then rolled on with Matt Adams' pinch-hit single and Matt Carpenter's sacrifice fly.
Craig drove in two with a double off the left-field wall. Matt Holliday, who had two hits and two runs scored, grounded out to push home another. David Freese, who reached base four times, capped the inning with an RBI double.
After tallying 10 hits in 55 chances with runners in scoring position during their losing streak, the Cardinals went 8-for-20 in such spots on Thursday. That improved their Major League-best batting average with runners on second and/or third to .335.
"We've kept the cat in the bag for four days," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "And the cat got out tonight."
The 13-run differential represented the largest margin of victory for the Cardinals this season. It also meant that despite losing four of five to the Pirates, they actually scored only two fewer runs in the series. The matchup between the division rivals drew a PNC Park-record four-date series attendance of 129,623.
The Cardinals and Pirates, who have the National League's two best records, will face each other nine more times as both make a run for a division title.
"The guys in this clubhouse just have a positive outlook on things," Craig said. "You almost have to relish the challenge of coming out of funks like this. … Just looking at the teams we had in 2011 and 2012, we had a lot of tough moments -- key guys getting injured, losing streaks, stuff like that. We've been there before."