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PITTSBURGH — At the end of a road trip that has driven them back into the race for the division title, the Cardinals took over from the start.

The Cardinals scored two runs in the first inning, hit two homers in the fourth, and added on in the fifth to pull away for a 6-3 victory against the Pirates on Thursday at PNC Park. The Cardinals completed a four-game sweep of the Pirates in Pittsburgh for the first time since 2004, and they have won 11 of their past 13 games.

The return home to start a series Friday at Busch Stadium in first place in the National League Central, tied with the Cubs, at 55-47.

They went 7-1 on the road trip along the Ohio River.

Birthday boy Jose Martinez got the Cardinals an early lead with an RBI single, and Paul DeJong, a day after hitting three homers, added a sacrifice fly for a 2-0 lead before the end of the first inning. In the fourth, Paul Goldschmidt hit a leadoff homer. For the first time in his career, he has at least one homer in four consecutive games, and he has homered in five consecutive games against the Pirates.

"There’s been a lot of big hits," Goldschmidt said. "That’s what it’s going to take for us to win. There’s not going to be one guy who can do it. That’s, I think, a strength of our team. When we’ve played well, it’s been Nos. 1 through 8, and even the pitchers something as simple as getting a bunt down. That’s our strength – our depth – and not relying on one or two guys to shoulder the load."

Kolten Wong added a solo home run later in the fourth, and Dexter Fowler capped the Cardinals' scoring with a two-run homer to dead center in the fifth inning.

Fowler's homer did two things for the Cardinals:

  • Tied the club record for home runs in a single series with 12.
  • Gave them at least one home run on this road trip from every position on the field, except for pitcher.

"We're catching our stride," Wong said. "This is big for us to be carrying this momentum into the next home series. Really tough matchups coming up for us. These are two postseason opponents. We're going to take this very seriously and see where we're at."

Miles Mikolas allowed three runs through six innings. He struck out five and walked one. Two of the three runs the Pirates scored on Mikolas came on an out. A sacrifice fly in the third inning, and then on a groundout later in the game. The six innings Mikolas gave the Cardinals on Thursday coupled with the two innings each from John Brebbia and Mike Mayers on Wednesday night helped steady the bullpen.

Andrew Miller, who had pitched in five of the previous seven games, bridged the lead Thursday to closer Carlos Martinez. The Pirates got the tying run to the plate in the ninth inning against Martinez before the righthander got a double play to end the game, end the sweep, and end the road trip.

A hearty offense "does a million different things," Mikolas said. "It gives you confidence. Let’s you know that you’re playing good right now. You score runs, guys start playing better defense. How many times have you seen a guy hit a home run and make a diving catch? To know that we’re kicking on all cylinders is awesome.

"When everyone gets on that same level it's going to be dangerous."

***

Cardinals' aim to put exclamation point on rally road trip, sweep Pirates

At times throughout this 17-game, 17-day stretch to open the second half of the season, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt has stolen a day here, stolen a day there for a regular to get his rest. He did it Sunday for Paul Goldschmidt, found a day in the previous week for Paul DeJong, and has swapped his catchers back and forth to keep them both fresh.

The benefit of that arrives Thursday afternoon, at PNC Park, in the finale of this eight-game road trip back into being a factor.

Rather than going with a getaway-game lineup that unloads the bench in one group, Shildt is dancing with the group what brung him, if you will. There isn't a recent regular getting the break. There isn't an everyday player coming off the bench for a late move. They're already there, and Shildt has been building toward that lineup by spotting days off instead of wholesale breaks. It also sets up the team for its return this weekend to Busch Stadium to face Houston.

The Cardinals could be in first place in the division by the end of the day.

Some quick notes from the pre-game chat with the manager:

  • Matt Carpenter will not be rejoining the team Friday. After a discussion with his manager, the team and player have decided for him to spend at least another day and possibly into the weekend with Class AAA Memphis and then Class AA Springfield.
  • Yadier Molina (thumb tendon) and Marcell Ozuna (hand fractures) are set to meet with specialists in the coming days to measure the recovery of their grip strength and their healing. Ozuna has seen a steep improvement in recent days as he nears a return.
  • Jedd Gyorko will participate in baseball activities Friday with the team during batting practice, and then a conversation will happen Saturday to determine if he starts a rehab assignment before the start of next week.

And here is the lineup that the Cardinals are taking into the series finale against Pittsburgh, backing Miles Mikolas:

1. Tommy Edman, 3B

2. Dexter Fowler, CF

3. Jose Martinez, RF

4. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B

5. Paul DeJong, SS

6. Kolten Wong, 2B

7. Matt Wieters, C

8. Yairo Munoz, LF

9. Miles Mikolas, P

And before I could finish updating the notes from the pre-game media access the Cardinals have already taken a 1-0 lead and have as many runs in the first inning as the Pirates have outs. So, we'll be updating that throughout the afternoon here at C-Beat, too.

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Derrick Goold is the lead Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and past president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.