ST. LOUIS -- Two sloppy losses to the last-place Marlins tensed the Cardinals' dugout this week, sparked a series of terse conversations in the rooms behind it and eventually seeped into their manager's public comments. His frustration frothing over his club's lack of fundamental play, Mike Matheny promised "a better brand of baseball" from the postgame podium late Wednesday night.
Not 12 hours later, it arrived. Behind an ever-efficient Miles Mikolas, St. Louis salvaged the finale of a three-game series with a clinical 4-1 win over the Marlins on Thursday.
Jose Martinez cranked a two-run homer and Luke Voit added a pinch-hit shot in support of Mikolas, who twirled seven strong innings. Jordan Hicks and Bud Norris then breezed through the final two frames to cap a win Matheny called "clean" in front of a crowd of 41,297 at Busch Stadium.
"It was a nice bounce-back day for us and a much better rhythm all the way around," Matheny said. "Much, much more like our club."
Buoyed by Martinez's homer in the first inning off losing pitcher Trevor Richards, Mikolas fueled his swelling All-Star candidacy by winning for the seventh time in 12 starts. The righty scattered three hits, struck out five and induced 11 groundouts. He retired 14 in a row until William Fowler's two-base error preceded a Justin Bour RBI double in the sixth. But that proved to be the Cardinals' lone blemish an afternoon after their manager bemoaned a series of recent miscues in the field, on the mound and the basepaths.
"We knew coming into today we had to find a way to play better," Matt Carpenter said. "We played better defense and did some of the little things better."
After committing three errors Wednesday night, rookie shortstop Yairo Munoz completed four chances without issue. After making a habit of waiting until the late innings to score, the Cardinals tallied early and added methodically throughout the day. Marcell Ozuna punched a run-scoring single into left off Brad Ziegler in the sixth before Voit deposited an Adam Conley heater into the visitor's bullpen in the seventh.
And after a string of poor starts from a rotation that has spent much of the year as one of the National League's best, Mikolas cruised through the middle innings, where St. Louis' bullpen picture is still very much in flux. His earned run average now rests at 2.27 -- tied for third among NL starters -- with the Midsummer Classic a month away.
"It would be a super cool experience," Mikolas said of his All-Star chances. "I would definitely really enjoy it and it would be something I keep with me for the rest of my life and the rest of my career."
Added Matheny: "We always talk about how much our starting pitching sets the tone. We had a bad tone the last couple days. With Miles going out there, it's a guy you know your team says, 'Hey, this guy is going to give us a real good chance.'"
Fully established as one of the Majors' top control pitchers after spending three years in Japan, Mikolas did not issue a non-intentional walk for the sixth time in 12 starts this season. Mikolas is one of just three NL hurlers to issue fewer walks (nine) than games started this season, and the only pitcher in the big leagues with at least 10 games started and fewer than 10 unintentional walks.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
The game marked a homecoming of sorts for Richards, who was born in nearby Aviston, Ill., and grew up a Cardinals fan. Richards graduated from Mater Dei Catholic High School before pitching collegiately at Drury University in Springfield, Mo. Around 100 friends and family members attended on Thursday, and he received a partial standing ovation after exiting in the sixth.
"As a kid, we came to a lot of Cardinals games," Richards said. "I got to pitch here once in high school, in an All-Star Game. It's not my first time on the mound here, but a different atmosphere this time around."
HE SAID IT
"It's hot. He's a sweater, too. He sweats. We were walking down in the tunnel there and he had jerseys lined up because he knew he was going to soak them and have to replace them, so I mean, he was losing some water weight today." -- Matheny, on Mikolas
"I had them ready to go but ended up not changing them. I'm a little superstitious. If one jersey is working, I stick with that one. The sun was drying my sweat about as fast as I could put it out." -- Mikolas
The Cardinals continue a nine-game stretch against the three NL teams with the worst records on Friday, when they travel to Cincinnati to open a three-game series at 6:10 p.m. CT against the Reds. Luke Weaver (3-5, 4.12) takes the mound for St. Louis, a day after two earned runs were shaved from his season line, courtesy of a scoring change on a play from his May 28 start in Milwaukee. Matt Harvey (1-4, 5.79) counters in what'll be his sixth start for the Reds following a trade last month. The Cardinals are 7-0 against Cincinnati this season.