ST. LOUIS -- With a lift from Matt Adams and a season-best performance by Allen Craig, the Cardinals salvaged the final game of a three-game series against the Brewers on Wednesday, putting a halt to Milwaukee's growing lead in the National League Central standings.
Even with their 9-3 victory, the Cardinals exit April on notice after watching the Brewers reel off 20 wins in the season's first month. The Cardinals entered the year favorites to repeat as division champs, yet they find themselves out of first place at the end of April for the first time since 2008.
Milwaukee's sits 5 1/2 games ahead, and the Cardinals won't get any more head-to-head matchups until the final days of the first half. But the Cardinals were pleased -- even relieved, perhaps? -- to at least send the Brewers out with a reminder that they, too, intend to stick around.
"We needed a huge win there," winning starter Shelby Miller said. "We didn't have the series we wanted to, but hopefully we start getting a lot of wins … and see if we can't catch up a bit."
Stung by extra-innings losses each of the previous two nights, the Cardinals started their catch-up by keeping from being swept at home by the Brewers for the first time since 2009. For the third game in a row, they squandered a first-inning lead. This time, however, the offense charged back and kept its foot on the pedal to prevent another Milwaukee comeback.
Behind, 3-1, the Cardinals scored eight unanswered runs with tallies in four consecutive innings. Adams crushed a three-run homer to push the Cardinals ahead in the third. Craig's two-run double padded the lead an inning later. Doubles by Miller and Jon Jay tacked on two fifth-inning runs.
"We've talked as a group that we can't let those thoughts start to creep that, 'Here it goes again' when we get a lead and lose it," manager Mike Matheny said. "You need somebody to step in for that big blow, and Adams being able to jump on one was a big blow.
"You never know what's going to be the one hit, the one play that gets people going in a positive direction. But that was one of them."
Craig then delivered a key component of his four-hit day, a solo homer that led off the sixth and was aided by instant replay review overturning the on-field call. Three of Craig's hits went for extra bases, and he pushed his batting average north of .200 (it's now .220) for the first time this year.
"I have been hitting the ball well; it just hasn't been good enough," said Craig, who has a five-game hitting streak. "It definitely was a good day for me personally to get some hits and drive in some runs in some big spots. I'm just trying to take it one at-bat at a time, one pitch at a time. As cliché as it sounds, I'm trying to keep things simple and focus on the job that I need to do."
It was enough to make a winner of Miller, despite the right-hander's continued trouble limiting long balls and free passes. Home runs by Mark Reynolds in the second and Carlos Gomez in the third built the Brewers' lead. Catcher Tony Cruz helped Miller escape the third by throwing out Scooter Gennett at second while Elian Herrera headed home.
Miller would follow with three scoreless innings before a leadoff walk in the seventh ended his day. He won three of his six starts in April, even though he walked 21 and served up seven homers in 34 1/3 innings.
"He hasn't had his best stuff," Matheny said of Miller. "I see a lot of things that are very positive with how he competes. … Shelby also has the ability to dominate if he can get everything locked in and fine-tune some of those things. It's one of the things he's going to have to clean up. And when he does, watch out."
Home runs have been more plentiful on the Cardinals' offensive end as well. After going homerless in nine straight games, the Cardinals have connected for at least one on four consecutive days. They have feasted, in particular, on Brewers pitching.
The Cardinals have gone deep in all six games against Milwaukee this season but have homered in just seven of their other 23 games.
The Cardinals' offense was not singularly dependent on home runs Wednesday. Jay, who entered 7-for-12 against Brewers starter Matt Garza, finished 3-for-4 with a walk. Batting behind him, Matt Holliday reached base four times. He drove Jay home with a first-inning single off Garza.
"I don't know, he just wasn't putting guys away," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said of Garza. "The balls that I saw that were hit well were pretty much middle of the plate. I thought his stuff was fine. I don't know if it was just location or what it was."
Garza couldn't give the Brewers' weary bullpen the same respite that Miller did, either. The Milwaukee starter walked off the mound in the fourth with a right thumb contusion and a pitch count of 83. Lefty Wei-Chung Wang, a Rule 5 Draft pick, allowed four runs in his three-inning relief appearance. Backup catcher Martin Maldonado was also called upon to pitch.
The Cardinals' bullpen, on the other hand, contributed three scoreless innings.
"It was good to see all aspects of our game click today," Adams said. "When we click with everything, we're a good team. The first two games of this series were extra innings, and we kept battling. We just ran into a hot team, and everything is clicking for them right now. If we continue playing like we have the last couple of days, I think we'll be fine."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.