The St. Louis Cardinals have put themselves in prime position to secure the NL's second wild card by taking advantage of a stretch of games against baseball's two worst teams.
From here on out, the competition will be much stiffer.
The Cardinals conclude the season with back-to-back home series against baseball's two best clubs, beginning Friday night when they face a Washington Nationals team still trying to lock down the NL East.
St. Louis' magic number to clinch a playoff spot and defend its World Series championship is four over the Los Angeles Dodgers with six games to play.
The Cardinals (84-72) have created some separation in the race by winning five of six over hapless Houston and two of three from lowly Chicago since Sept. 18. Prior to this run, St. Louis had lost eight of 11, which included dropping three of four in Washington from Aug. 30-Sept. 2.
Wins could again be hard to come by for the Cardinals, with their remaining games against Washington and NL Central-champion Cincinnati - the two teams trying to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
"We have a tough homestand coming up," Chris Carpenter told the Cardinals' official website after Wednesday's 2-0 loss to the Astros. "We have to go back there and win some ballgames, so that we have some momentum going into the wild card, if we get there."
Although the Nationals (95-61) own baseball's best record, they still haven't assured themselves of avoiding the wild card. They have a magic number of three to clinch their first division crown, leading Atlanta by four games with six to play."We have to keep fighting," said Gio Gonzalez , who became the majors' first 21-game winner with Thursday's 7-3 victory over Philadelphia. "It won't be easy. We just want to do what we've been doing all year."
What the Nationals have done to get to this point is win with their pitching. The NL leaders with a 3.29 ERA, they held St. Louis to four runs in their three wins earlier this month.
Edwin Jackson (9-10, 3.77 ERA) shut down his former team in an 8-1 victory in that series opener, allowing an unearned run and four hits with 10 strikeouts over eight innings. Yadier Molina was hitless in two at-bats after going 7 for 8 in prior matchups with his former batterymate, who made four postseason starts for the Cardinals during last October's World Series run.
The veteran right-hander had a 7.47 ERA in his three starts following his mastery over St. Louis before yielding one run and six hits over eight innings in last Friday's 4-2 loss to Milwaukee, though he didn't get the decision.
St. Louis counters with Adam Wainwright (13-13, 4.02), who gave up four runs and six hits over seven innings in Saturday's 5-4, 11-inning victory over the Chicago Cubs . Wainwright, whose last victory came in Cincinnati on Aug. 26, is 0-3 with a 6.41 ERA in his last five starts after sporting a 1.47 ERA in winning his previous five.
His winless stretch started in the nation's capital Aug. 31, when he was knocked around for six runs and nine hits in a season-low 2 2-3 innings in a 10-0 loss. Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond each had a pair of hits off the righty.
Werth is batting .351 with three homers and eight RBIs in his last nine games versus the Cardinals, while Desmond is a lifetime .421 hitter in St. Louis.
|September 12, 2012||Michael Morse||Day-to-Day||Torn cuff and bone bruise in left wrist|
|September 03, 2012||Michael Morse||Day-to-Day||Left game - sore right thumb|
|September 02, 2012||Jayson Werth||Day-to-Day||Sore hamstring|
|August 24, 2012||Ian Desmond||Day-to-Day||Strained right hamstring|
|August 24, 2012||Michael Morse||Day-to-Day||Left game - right hand contusion|
|August 13, 2012||Jayson Werth||Day-to-Day||Sore right ankle|
|St. Louis Cardinals|
|September 23, 2012||Yadier Molina||Day-to-Day||Lower back spasms|
|September 09, 2012||David Freese||Day-to-Day||Swollen left ankle|
|September 09, 2012||Matt Carpenter||Day-to-Day||Cut hand|
|September 09, 2012||Jake Westbrook||Day-to-Day||Strained right oblique|
|August 31, 2012||Rafael Furcal||15-Day DL||Torn UCL, right elbow - out for season|
|August 30, 2012||Rafael Furcal||Day-to-Day||Left game - right elbow strain|
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Nine runs in 1 1-3 innings said it all. The St. Louis Cardinals took all the suspense out of a matchup of teams on the cusp of clinchers.
Even in a wipeout loss, the Washington Nationals took away a big positive.
Allen Craig matched his career best with four hits to go with two RBIs, Yadier Molina hit a two-run home run and the Cardinals punished Edwin Jackson in a 12-2 victory Friday night to reduce their magic number for clinching the second wild-card berth to three.
"I think our team's coming together nicely," St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright said. "We've been playing good ball for the last few weeks and we're going to be a very dangerous team if we get in there. When we get in there.
"Hopefully it happens sooner rather than later."
Roger Bernadina homered and Bryce Harper had his fourth consecutive multi-hit game for Washington, which saw its magic number for wrapping up the NL East cut to two when Atlanta lost to the Mets. The Nationals, who secured the first postseason berth for Washington, D.C., since 1933 a week earlier, lead the Braves by four games with five to play and could wrap up the division title Saturday night.
"That was a beating tonight, but we're obviously watching the scoreboard," the Nationals' Adam LaRoche said. "The Braves finally lost a game this month, so I guess we can take that as a positive."
Wainwright (14-13) halted a string of four so-so starts with six solid innings for the Cardinals. The defending World Series champions have won nine of 11 overall, and 11 of their last 12 at home against Washington since 2008.
St. Louis' win also eliminated Arizona from contention for a wild-card spot.
Jordan Zimmerman (12-8, 2.90) faces the Cardinals' Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.77) in the second game of a three-game series.
"This is a good team we're playing," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "But we're a pretty good team, too."
The Nationals and Cincinnati Reds , who got a no-hitter from Homer Bailey in a 1-0 victory over the Pirates, are tied for the league's best record at 95-62. The team with the best overall record will open the NL division series on the road against the winner of a one-game playoff between the wild card teams.
Jackson (9-11) was chased early by a team that he dominated a month at home, allowing an unearned run in eight innings with 10 strikeouts in an 8-1 victory.
Jackson (9-11) left trailing 9-1 after just 1 1-3 innings, his shortest outing of the season, in his first start in St. Louis since leaving as a free agent. Jackson was 5-2 with a 3.58 ERA down the stretch last fall, helping the Cardinals earn the wild card on the final day of the season, and was the winning pitcher in Game 4 of the NL division series over Philadelphia.
"Today's game was just very disappointing and embarrassing," Jackson said. "Your club is in a pennant race and you have a game like that, it definitely leaves a bitter taste in your mouth that you did absolutely nothing to give your team a chance to win."
Jackson said returning for the first time to the city he helped win a World Series had nothing to do with his woes.
"That didn't have any effect at all," Jackson said. "No pressure, no added emotions or anything like that."
The Cardinals topped six runs for the first time since beating the Nationals 10-9 on Sept. 1 on the road. Their run total was the most allowed by Washington this season.
Manager Davey Johnson conceded before the bottom of the fifth when he took out four regulars, including 1-2-3 hitters Jayson Werth , Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman . He pulled two more starters in the middle of the sixth, and in the bottom of the seventh only seventh-place hitter Danny Espinosa remained in the lineup, although not at his original position after moving from second base to shortstop earlier.
"It wasn't happening tonight," Johnson said. `But we got a little help from our friends, so that's nice."
Matheny took out Molina and Carlos Beltran after seven innings. A third starter, Matt Holliday , was removed after getting hit by a pitch on the left elbow by Christian Garcia in the sixth. The team said Holliday had a contusion and was day to day.
"Everything came back pretty negative, but it's a bad spot," Matheny said. "I don't care if you hit it on the bone, a ball thrown that hard, that's a bad spot."
A few minutes later in his postgame news conference, Matheny had a much brighter outlook, saying, "To me, Matt Holliday 's going to get locked in here any day."
LaRoche drove in his 99th run in the first, but that cushion didn't last long for Washington.
The first five Cardinals hitters scored and the first seven reached safely with the help of a late throw on a forceout attempt by shortstop Ian Desmond and a fielding error by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman , trying for a force at the plate on Molina's slow roller with the bases loaded.
Craig's RBI single and Daniel Descalso 's sacrifice fly with the bases loaded, the first out of the inning, were the only hard-hit balls in a five-run first. In 30 starts, Jackson has allowed 25 runs on 36 hits and 18 walks in the first.
Jon Jay doubled to open the four-run second. Craig got another RBI single ahead of Molina's 22nd homer into the visitor's bullpen in left and Jackson was yanked after walking Beltran for the second time.
Jackson matched his season worst with eight earned runs allowed, failed to strike out anyone for the first time this year, and threw two wild pitches after entering his 30th start with just one all season. He has allowed 25 runs in the first inning.
NOTES: Jackson's shortest-ever outing is just one-third of an inning in a 9-1 loss to the Padres on June 13, 2007 when he was with Tampa Bay. ... The Cardinals honored the staff of their Springfield, Mo., affiliate, the Texas League champions, in a pregame ceremony. ... Shane Robinson , who replaced Holliday, hit a two-run homer in the eighth.