The Cardinals won again Thursday night, 3-2, over the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brew Crew stranded nine runners over the last four innings. The Cards held on to this razor-thin margin because of clutch pitching and some truly outstanding defense.
The nature of the game did not reflect the fact that these had been two clubs headed in opposite directions. The outcome Thursday night was, based on recent results, exactly what you would have expected. It was the sixth straight victory for the Redbirds. It was the ninth straight loss for the Brewers. Milwaukee has been outscored, 58-18, in those nine losses.
The Brewers were in first place for 150 consecutive days this season, but now they are four games behind St. Louis in the National League Central race. The Cardinals are in the midst of making the most of a pivotal week. They just took three straight from the Pirates, dropping Pittsburgh well off the pace.
The Cards and the Brewers meet six more times this season, so the Central race is far from a done deal. But the trends are unmistakable.
St. Louis kept its streak alive with brilliant defense. Jon Jay made two run-saving catches in right; one a diving catch on a sinking liner, the other a running grab in the corner.
In center, Peter Bourjos made a game-saving play with two on in the eighth, racing to the wall to make a sensational catch on a drive by Logan Schafer.
"I thought that ball was gone," Matheny said. "Just an incredible catch. Incredible. He's not just fast. He has great instincts and good jumps."
Bourjos, one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, was matter-of-fact about the play.
"I felt like it could be right at the wall," Bourjos said. "I didn't think it would be out and I was just trying to get back to the wall in time. My initial break on it, I thought, was good."
Bourjos smacked into the wall just after making the catch, but he held onto the ball and his health.
"Once the ball is in my glove, I try to relax, to absorb the impact of the wall and so the ball doesn't come out," Bourjos said. "It's tough in that situation, because you have to focus on the ball and not the wall. "
One way or another, the Cardinals are playing their best baseball at precisely the right time. A big factor is getting catcher Yadier Molina back from a seven-week absence with a torn thumb ligament.
The Cards did not evaporate when Molina was sidelined. They went 21-19. But Molina is an invaluable all-around presence for St. Louis, particularly for his diligent and devoted work with the pitching staff.
In any case, the Cardinals have the timing down.
"Obviously, we're playing good baseball right now," Cards general manager John Mozeliak said. "Hopefully, we can continue to do so. But we take nothing for granted.
"One of the things you learn early in your career is that it matters where you end. Obviously, getting off to a good start helps, but if you finish strong and allow yourself to take that next step, the timing of playing well late has value."
Matheny likes the way his club has moved forward late in the season.
"It's also pretty special to watch how these guys have fought, from behind, when things would get tough, watching them get tougher," Matheny said. "Seeing the various characters step in. We've seen great leadership from the veterans, we've seen different guys step in, [On Wednesday] Peter Bourjos got a big hit. And it's been nice to see some of the young guys come through, as well. We've been playing the game with a lot of heart. And that's what any coach or manager would love to see."
The Cardinals, in September, are playing that kind of game. It has not been easy to reach first place, but that becomes a logical spot for a team playing this well at this time of year.