MIAMI • Several hours before the start of Tuesday's game, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny lamented that the lineup fiasco from the previous night had stolen headlines from a more deserving subject, the player he called the "real story" of the victory.
He didn't need to worry.
Yadier Molina is the story of the series, and perhaps the season.
The Cardinals' Gold Glove catcher cracked a three-run homer in the first inning, his third homer in as many games, and then guided starter Kyle Lohse through a superb 7 1/3 innings Tuesday. Molina's homer punctuated a five-run first inning for the Cardinals and proved the difference in their 5-2 victory against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Given that five-run lead before he threw a pitch, Lohse then followed Molina's lead to his second win in as many starts this season at the Marlins' shiny new downtown ballpark.
"He's got that confidence up there are the plate that if somebody leaves a pitch over the plate he's going to punish it," said Lohse (7-2). "It's just awesome to watch him do that and be a game-changer behind the plate as well."
The win gave the Cardinals (40-35) their first five-game winning streak of the season and pushed them to five games better than .500 for the first time in nearly a month. The Marlins, who greased the Cardinals' rally in the first inning with two errors, lost their 17th game in their past 20. By the time Jason Motte pitched a perfect ninth for his 16th save of the season, Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen was already back in his office, ejected for the first time this season after arguing the strike zone in the seventh inning.
Lohse allowed two runs on four hits, but between his work and Molina's power there was a dazzling double play turned by shortstop Rafael Furcal that changed the game.
The first opposing pitcher to start a second game at Marlins Park, Lohse took a no-hitter through six innings on opening night at the ballpark, back on April 4. Giancarlo Stanton tagged him for a solo homer in the first inning and a double that led to a run in the fourth inning, but Lohse didn't face the tying run at the plate until sixth inning. For the fourth time in five starts this month and the 10th time this season, Lohse allowed two or fewer runs. In five starts he has knocked his ERA down from 3.36 to 2.82.
Only two Marlins pitchers have more victories this season at Marlins Park than Lohse.
"It's been a nice run for him," Matheny said. "He's a guy who gets out there every day and I think gets overlooked a lot. It shouldn't be a surprise. But for some reason they kind of overlook him a little bit. Kyle has just been solid."
He was Tuesday because Furcal was slick.
As his shortstop stirred from a prolonged slump, Matheny has fielded many questions this past week about leadoff hitter Furcal and lauded the switch-hitter for his recent role in priming the Cardinals' lineup. A Furcal revival has been no small part of the Cardinals' current burst of runs. He's scored a run in six consecutive games, and his leadoff single sparked the five-run first inning against Marlins starter Carlos Zambrano (4-6). He scored on Carlos Beltran's 1,998th career hit. An error by Zambrano and a fielding error by Jose Reyes then set the bases for Molina's homer.
The focus of Matheny's compliments was the offense Furcal provides.
A pivot point in Tuesday's game was the offense Furcal denies.
The Marlins' best chance to dent Lohse came in the sixth inning when the first two batters, speedy Reyes and former batting champ Hanley Ramirez, reached base. Stanton, the potential tying run and one of the league's top long-drive sluggers, drilled a 2-1 pitch from Lohse that traveled about 390 feet from home plate. Beltran met it at the wall for the first out of the inning.
The next batter, Logan Morrison, scalded a ground ball that seemed certain to at least drive in one of the runners on base. Furcal, shaded up the middle, instead gloved a sharp and sizzling hop. The Cardinals' shortstop raced to second for a force out and then threw to first to complete the inning-ending double play. Lohse retired the next four batters he faced to shepherd the Cardinals' three run lead into the eighth inning and straight to setup man Mitchell Boggs.
"Any time you give up a ball hit that hard, you don't expect anybody to catch it," Lohse said. Added Molina: "But that play changed the game."
It was a game, however, that Molina dictated.
Monday night's come-from-behind victory will be remembered as the night a lineup miscommunication between Matheny and umpire Bob Davidson cost the Cardinals two of their best run producers. Matheny argued after that game and again on Tuesday that so much talk about an error detracted from the rally the Cardinals performed in the 8-7 victory, a rally that was keyed by Molina's two-run, game-tying homer in the ninth.
His homer Tuesday gives him 12 on the season, two shy of his career high, and it's not even July. Molina's .317 average is among the league leaders, and Lohse said he didn't shake off a call from the catcher once in the game. Before Furcal rescued him, it was Molina who gave Lohse a plan of escape in the dicey sixth.
Molina has had very few off days.
He's getting today off, Matheny said.
"He just doesn't rest on (his performance)," Matheny said. "I've never been shy about saying it. He's the best in the game."