ST. LOUIS -- Normally all business at the ballpark, Yadier Molina took a moment to enjoy himself on Sunday night.
Molina drilled a two-out, three-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning, sending the Cardinals to a 3-0 win over the rival Reds in the finale of a three-game series. As he hustled around the bases -- recalling Brandon Phillips' sprint following a homer two days earlier -- he raised a fist in celebration, treating the sixth-inning shot as though it was a walk-off job.
For all practical purposes, though, it was. Cincinnati barely threatened after that, as the Cardinals' bullpen locked down a hard-earned win that punctuated a memorable early-season weekend. St. Louis won its fourth straight series and moved into sole possession of first place in the National League Central. The Cards lead Milwaukee by one-half game and Cincinnati by one game.
Molina, a central player in the Cards-Reds drama last summer, denied any particular pointedness to the trot. But the parallels to Phillips' earlier shot were curious, to say the least.
"Every time you hit a home run, what do you want?" Molina asked rhetorically. "You want to be mad? Or sad? No. You've got to enjoy it, man. Especially me. I don't hit a bunch of home runs. Every time I get an opportunity to enjoy it, that's the way you have to play this game. Fun."
Molina's shot helped make it a fun night for a soggy crowd of 38,201, who sat through a steady rain over the final four innings of the contest. It also helped provide some justice for Jake Westbrook, who pitched superbly.
Rain began to descend upon downtown St. Louis in the fifth inning of a 0-0 game, and the forecast called for no letup anytime soon once it began. Thus, the impetus was on the Cardinals to get at least one run, or face a possible suspended game. Though the rain never grew heavy enough to force a delay, the runs stood up for the home team.
"I was just thinking it would be a tough night to score," manager Tony La Russa said. "Both starting pitchers were good. You've got two good bullpens. Once you score, it doesn't mean the game is over, but it was nice it was a crooked number. That definitely helps."
With one out in the bottom of the sixth, Matt Holliday stroked a double to right off of Edinson Volquez, who was quite effective but somewhat erratic over 5 2/3 innings. The Reds chose to walk Lance Berkman intentionally, and Daniel Descalso popped up for the second out.
That brought up Molina, who pounced on a first-pitch fastball from Volquez and drilled it 406 feet into the left-center-field stands.
"He took a pretty good swing on that ball," Volquez said. "He's real aggressive with runners on base, especially deep in the game. He's always hitting the ball the other way, and I think he was looking for that pitch inside. He took a very good swing."
The shot supported what was easily Westbrook's best outing of 2011. The right-hander didn't allow a hit until the fourth inning, and made it through six with no runs on three hits. He struck out four and walked three, one of them intentional, in lowering his ERA from 9.82 to 7.40.
"I think the first three or four ballgames, I found myself kind of not having a purpose with any pitch, just kind of throwing it up there," Westbrook said. "Slinging it up there and hoping something good happens, instead of telling myself to have a focus and a purpose for each pitch. I really concentrated on doing that tonight, and felt like I was more locked in and focused on what I needed to be doing. And it helped me out a lot."
Westbrook induced nine ground-ball outs, against just three in the air. And though he still threw a few too many balls, he looked quite a bit sharper than in recent outings. The results were dramatically better.
Once the Cards had the lead, he handed the ball over to the youthful half of the St. Louis bullpen, which once again did crackling work. Fernando Salas, Eduardo Sanchez and Mitchell Boggs turned in shutout relief work behind Westbrook, as the Cardinals improved to 10-4 over their last 14 games. Boggs recorded his third save in as many opportunities, and he ranks third among National League relievers with 15 strikeouts on the year.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.