MILWAUKEE • Even before the start of Thursday night’s game, the Cardinals already had won the evening. Miller Park was the setting, and the Brewers were gracious hosts. The two NL Central rivals would engage in a frisky, frenetic competition that bordered on zaniness.

After 3 hours and 35 minutes inside the cuckoo’s nest, the Cardinals emerged with a 3-2 victory that pushed the forlorn Brewers into a deeper hole in the NL Central standings. But the scoreboard result was a secondary concern.

The number that mattered most was No. 52.

It belongs to Michael Wacha.

And the highlight of this summer shandy of a game was having Wacha return for his first major-league start since the 17th of June. This was an important moment that could lead to even bigger, more dramatic moments later this month and into October.

What Wacha did for the 2013 Cardinals last October was an experience they won’t forget, and it is a phenomenon they’d like to like to live through again.

Manager Mike Matheny called Wacha’s comeback “another shot in the arm for us.”

The right arm. Wacha’s arm. Wacha took a positive first step Thursday. Harnessed by a limited pitch count as he rebuilds stamina, Wacha fired a 50-pitch assortment of fastballs, curves and changeups over three impressive innings.

Wacha allowed one run, three hits, a walk and struck out there. Wacha broke a sweat but he did not break down. He looked strong. He looked ready to make a difference as the Cardinals fasten their grip on the NL Central.

And there’s your victory, Cards fans.

“It was awesome,” Cardinals center fielder Peter Bourjos said. “He looked sharp. That was the best I’ve seen him look, probably since earlier in the year. His velocity was back, it looked like his breaking ball was sharp, he was down in the zone with his fastball. I’m excited to get him back when he’s throwing 100 pitches and he’ll be out there for the whole game.”

Wacha’s command wasn’t at peak form, but that was expected after such a long layoff and short prep time for his comeback. Wacha was fast-forwarded straight to the Cards’ September division race after a single minor-league rehab start and had a restricted pitch count.

Cards GM John Mozeliak made the trip to Milwaukee for the sole purpose of monitoring Wacha. A satisfied — and relieved — Mozeliak is heading back to St. Louis this morning. There were no shoulder-related stress reoccurrences for Wacha. There were no stress-related issues for Mozeliak’s heart.

Wacha gave the GM peace. The whole team may have exhaled, too. It’s exciting to see this exceptionally talented thoroughbred running again.

“Clearly we’ve seen Wacha better, but we’re pleased given the fact that this is really only his second outing in over 60 days,” Mozeliak said. “He came out here, and give us three innings of one-run baseball and more importantly, got his pitch count up. I feel like he got in the work he needed to, which is always difficult to replicate at the major-league level.”

The Cardinals’ rotation was left unsettled when Wacha headed to the disabled list in mid-June to pinpoint the reasons for a weakening of a muscle around his right shoulder.

From the time Wacha made his last start until his reappearance at Miller Park, the Cardinals ranked 25th in the majors with a 4.25 ERA.

With Wacha well on the way to a full restoration, the Cardinals can march through September with a rotation of Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey, Wacha and Shelby Miller. That’s a strong group of five starters — especially if Wainwright smooths his mechanical glitches.

Nothing is locked in yet. But the four starters lined up to face the Brewers this weekend — Wacha, Lackey, Lynn and Wainwright – could easily be the Cards’ postseason foursome.

Wacha was reprogrammed during his down time to reinforce the problem spot. Cardinals medics and trainers put Wacha through a regimen to strengthen other essential parts of his pitching machine: the core, the lower body, the shoulder area.

“The strength will allow him to not to put his shoulder in a place of vulnerability when pitching,” Mozeliak said. “They were strengthening everything that leads up to that moment of him throwing the pitch. And talking to Wacha, he’s never felt stronger.”

Well, if Wacha can continue to build on Thursday’s restart, the Cardinals will feel stronger, too.

The Cardinals jumped on Brewers starter Wily Peralta for three early runs, and Wacha handed a 3-1 lead to a parade of six relievers. For the Cards, the remaining six innings were a long tussle of missed run-scoring opportunities, some butchery afield, tightrope-walking relievers and multiple outbreaks of heartburn.

“We had all kind of messes out there,” Matheny said.

The Cardinals were saved by two ridiculous catches by right fielder Jon Jay, and Bourjos making like Peter Rabbit to chase down a long flare scorched to the wall by the bat of Brewers’ Logan Shafer. Did you see that? For the Brew Crew, seeing was disbelieving.

The Cardinals thus extended the cruel misery of a fading Milwaukee team that now has lost nine consecutive games, free-falling from first place to trail the Cards by four games with only 22 left to play.

The Brewers, 22-35 since late June, are hoping to accomplish two things this weekend: (1) get off the floor, shake off their slump and walk a straight line; (2) slow the St. Louis roll.

Instead, the Brewers took another loss to the chin, and the Cardinals won their sixth straight game to put more muscle on their bold NL Central takeover.

But this was all a bonus. The real triumph was the return of No. 52.

Bernie Miklasz has been covering St. Louis sports since 1989. 

Bernie Miklasz is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.