CINCINNATI • Maybe it was coincidence or a regression to the mean. Maybe it was something more tangible such as irritation, even outrage at an upstart opponent's reference to them as "little bitches."
Regardless, the Cardinals spent Wednesday afternoon setting forth their own identity in a 6-1 admonishment of the now second-place Cincinnati Reds.
Mixing another dominant start by Adam Wainwright with their refusal to let an inning die, the Cardinals used center fielder Colby Rasmus' birthday grand slam to break a fifth-inning scoreless tie en route to a three-game sweep of a team that may have said too much too soon.
The Cardinals entered the series two games out of first place but exited the dominant team. They increased their season edge over the Reds to 10-5 by outscoring them 21-8 for the series.
The Reds talked Monday, skirmished Tuesday and went quietly all three days.
The Cardinals looked like what was expected of them in April.
"We're doing what we should have done all year," said Wainwright, who lowered his overall ERA to 1.99 while improving to 9-0 in day starts. "But whether we did or we didn't, we're doing it now. And now is when it counts. We're starting to get down to the nitty-gritty here. We've got about 1 1/2 months left. It's very important that our team bring our game every day. Our team is playing very well right now."
Ridiculed as "little bitches, all of them" by Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips before the series, the Cardinals gave an unswerving performance that concluded with Wednesday's five-hit lockdown.
"If we play like this from here to the end, we'll have a chance," manager Tony La Russa said. "This is a very solid series in just about every department."
Phillips' verbal slap Monday questioned the team's character in addition to voicing "hate."
Rather than respond in kind, a clubhouse far more familiar with the postseason spoke with its most impressive road series to date.
"With the pitching we had, it was going to be pretty tough on them, especially coming in with the words they were putting out there," Rasmus said. "It just got everybody more pumped up. It definitely ended working in our favor."
Now 15 games above .500 (64-49), the Cardinals find themselves alone in first place for the 10th time this season. Perhaps for the first time they appear willing to rely on their own performance rather than collective mediocrity within their division.
"We play our game. We control our destiny. That's enough," first baseman Albert Pujols said.
Wainwright (17-6) confined the Reds to two hits through seven shutout innings, extending his run of scoreless innings to 21. Four relievers cleaned up the final six outs after a 46-minute rain delay.
"We've got to keep our head in the right place," La Russa said. "It shows our club we're capable."
Rasmus celebrated both his and his mother's birthdays with his 19th home run this season and his first career slam. In April, Rasmus had described Reds starter Bronson Arroyo's soft-tossing assortment with an unflattering description.
Wednesday, he readied himself for the slow stuff, even after falling behind 0-2 in the count in his third plate appearance. Rather than panic, Rasmus waited. "I was trying to be as late as possible. If he threw a fastball there and beat me, you've got to tip your cap," Rasmus said.
Arroyo (12-7) called his full-count offering a fastball but it measured only 82 miles per hour. Rasmus launched it an estimated 418 feet to the base of the batter's eye in center field. When the blast landed, the typically reserved Rasmus thrust a fist skyward and a normally reserved bench literally jumped.
"After I hit that ball, it probably was about as jacked as I've been in awhile," Rasmus said. "With all the stuff going on, and how big this series is, we came in trying to make a mark. I was pumped. I was as pumped as you can get."
Rasmus' punch to the sky knocked the wind from a team that never found a spark.
The Reds entered the series leading the league in hitting, runs and slugging percentage but were muted during the early innings of a series in which they never led. In three games the Reds advanced only four runners into scoring position before the sixth inning. Three reached during Tuesday's two-run third inning off Jaime Garcia; the fourth reached on third baseman Felipe Lopez's two-out throwing error in Wednesday's fifth.
Wainwright's ERA is the lowest by a Cardinals pitcher after 25 starts since Steve Carlton held a 1.86 ERA at the same juncture in 1969.
"That's the same thing Adam Wainwright has done ever since he came to the big leagues — winning big games for us," Pujols said. "Just like Carp. Just like Garcia."
The Reds scraped for nine hits and six earned runs in the Cardinals starters' 19 1/3 innings; the Cardinals attacked the home rotation for 22 hits and 14 earned runs in only 14 combined innings.
The Cards looked like the team with the plan. They worked over rookie Mike Leake early in counts Monday then exercised greater patience against Arroyo.
Rallies of seven, four, three, three and two runs suggested an offense that has found an ability to string hits. Monday's seven-run fourth inning represents the Cardinals' biggest of the season.
Grand slams by second baseman Skip Schumaker and Rasmus sapped the energy from crowds poised to celebrate their team's return to prominence.
Schumaker contributed three hits and an RBI Wednesday. Left fielder Matt Holliday followed Tuesday night's four-hit game by running his hitting streak to seven games. Rookie right fielder Jon Jay added two hits for a nine-for-22 road trip.
The Cardinals completed their first series sweep on the road to complete a 4-1 trip. A team that admittedly underachieved during the season's first half found focus. Phillips' goading provided an easy target.
"We're playing the game, man," said Pujols, who lost a 10-game hitting streak within his team's 11-hit assault. "We're playing one game at a time, one at-bat at a time, one pitch at a time, one play at a time. At the end, you look at the scorebook. If we win, then great. If not, we pick it up the next day."
The Cardinals entered the week having won only two of their last nine road series. They have now won five of their last seven road games.
"I've said before there's no reason this club can't play well and win games on the road," La Russa said. "We proved it in the first couple months. The starting pitching is going to give you a shot. That starts it. With our hitters, we have nice balance. There's no reason why we can't do this. It was a solid series."