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Molina and Craig lead Cardinals past Nationals

By Derrick Goold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

ST. LOUIS — That outpouring of offense that that the Cardinals have been craving for so long came Friday through the hitters they’ve come to rely on so often.

Yadier Molina and Allen Craig, the club’s most-consistent hitters throughout this season, combined to score four runs and drive in five as the Cardinals trounced Washington, 12-2, at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals raked Washington starter Edwin Jackson for nine runs in the first two innings, punctuated by Molina’s two-run homer, which ejected Jackson from the game before he collected a fifth out.

Craig contributed four hits, including a pair of RBI singles in the first two innings, to push the Cardinals’ biggest offensive output in nearly five weeks. Only twice before this month had the Cardinals scored 12 runs total in consecutive games, let alone in a single game.

“I think it’s important for us to see that we have the ability to come out and do that,” manager Mike Matheny said. “And then you raise your expectation level.”

The win moved the Cardinals (85-72) to a 3 ½-game lead on the Los Angeles Dodgers for the league’s second wild card, pending the outcome of LA’s game late Friday. The loss dropped the Nationals (95-62) into a tie with Cincinnati for the best record in the NL.

The offense provided a welcome but unnecessary cushion for Adam Wainwright.

The righty is scheduled to start the final game of the regular season, Wednesday vs. Cincinnati, but the Cardinals could reset the rotation or rest Wainwright should they clinch before his next appearance. Wainwright allowed a first-inning run to the Nationals and then nothing else during his six innings of work. That was enough to lower his ERA to less than 4.00 (it’s 3.94) and raise his record above .500 (it’s 14-13) in his first season back from elbow reconstructive surgery.

“I’d more than welcome the opportunity if we go ahead and clinch this thing soon to sit back and be ready for whatever game they need me,” said Wainwright, who is four outs shy of pitching 200 innings this season. “I would think they would want me to be ready for (the wild-card playoff) or the next one. But I think as it stands now Kyle Lohse gets that start and he’s very deserving of it.”

Leadoff hitter Jon Jay, who had hit .208 in his previous 17 games, was a harbinger of the offense ahead as he elevated his .384 home average with hits in his first two at-bats to lead off the first and second innings. Matt Carpenter followed with a walk each time, and the fuse was lit. The Cardinals scored nine runs before Jackson had a fifth out, and the only hit that produced more than one run was Molina’s 22nd homer of the season. Shane Robinson added a two-run homer in the eighth after he replaced Matt Holliday, who left the game with a deep bruise above his left elbow caused when he was hit by a pitch. X-rays taken at the ballpark showed there wasn’t a fracture, two team officials confirmed.

The Nationals and the Cardinals converged at Busch on Friday in an unusual situation. Both teams had strong leads and could clinch their respective playoff berths on the same day this weekend, and yet both teams cannot coast because of teams chasing them. Washington’s “magic number” to win the National League East — the Nats’ stated goal — dropped to two with Atlanta’s loss to New York on Friday night.

The Cardinals’ “magic number” to win the NL’s second wild card, their only remaining route into the postseason, dropped to three.

“I like these games meaning something,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said before the rout. “I think it’s a good education. It makes it more fun knowing that the Cardinals have got a lot riding on it and we got a lot riding on it.”

Said Matheny: “The numbers are what the numbers are. It’s a hard push.”

In his first appearance at Busch since pitching for the Cardinals during last October’s World Series run, Jackson had his worst outing as a National. He called it “embarrassing.” The first six batters of the game reached base against Jackson. Three scored before he had an out, and the Cardinals’ fourth run for a 4-1 lead scored on Jackson’s first out. The Cardinals scored five runs in the first inning, and only two of them came on base hits. In 30 starts this season, Jackson has allowed 25 first-inning runs (24 earned). Two of his four outs Friday came when Wainwright chopped into a double play that ended the first inning.

The Cardinals had not had such an outburst in months.

As they’ve groped for some remnant of the offense that powered them in the first half of the season, the Cardinals had scored more than five runs in an entire game only three times this month. This past week, the Cardinals pounded woebegone foes Chicago and Houston for six runs in back-to-back games — the first time the Cardinals had accomplished that feat of offensive superiority since Aug. 23 and 24. They hadn’t scored as many as 10 in a game since Sept. 1.

That was two days after Jackson (9-11) overwhelmed his former team. The righthander allowed one unearned run and struck out 10 in eight innings to defeat the Cardinals. He had no such secrets Friday. The Cardinals did not have a swing-and-miss until the 15th batter of the game, and by then Jackson’s Nats already trailed 9-1.

Jackson’s first swing-and-miss came on his 53rd pitch of the game.

Three pitches later he had walked Carlos Beltran for the second time and was out of the game.

“If our lineup gets going the way we can and score 12 every night, we’re going to be in real good shape,” Wainwright said, winking, before adding, straight-faced: “The way they’ve been swinging it lately is a real good sign. We’ll be a very dangerous team.”

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