CHICAGO -- It's a lot of fun to be a Cardinal these days.
From pregame to the last out, just about everything went the Redbirds' way on Thursday as they finished off yet another series victory by beating the Cubs, 9-1, at Wrigley Field. Jaime Garcia turned in yet another outstanding performance, and the Cards cruised to the win after a five-run second inning.
Kyle Lohse set the tone for the laugher before the first pitch was thrown. Lohse brought out the Cardinals' lineup card wearing a Tony La Russa costume, including La Russa's jersey, taking a gentle jab at the ailing skipper, who is recuperating from illness in St. Louis.
On top of that, the sun even came out by the end of the afternoon, providing a beautiful backdrop for an enjoyable afternoon at the ballpark. And an eye-raising managerial decision worked out perfectly, with Allen Craig surviving five innings at second base before being lifted for a defensive replacement. It finished up with a perfect inning by Fernando Salas, the third time all year (and first time in nearly four weeks) that a Cardinals reliever finished off a win by going three-up, three-down.
Thus it was a very happy team that ascended into the visiting clubhouse at Wrigley Field and prepared for the short flight to Cincinnati.
"We've definitely got great talent on this team," said Garcia. "But other than that, everybody gets along with everybody pretty good. ... The veterans, the young guys, everybody's helping each other. Everybody's learning from each other and everybody gets along really good."
Garcia came out dealing, setting the Cubs down 1-2-3 in the first, and before he took the mound again, he had a huge lead to work with. Matt Holliday led off the second with a home run. With one out, the Cards loaded the bases for Garcia, who delivered an RBI single, and Jon Jay smacked a two-run double. Craig's sacrifice fly capped the outburst, and the visitors were on their way.
It was a different sort of game for Garcia, who has often been either dominant or shaky. On Thursday he was neither, yet highly effective. He allowed at least one baserunner in six of seven innings, but continued to pound the strike zone and strand runners. He issued one walk over seven innings and needed only 84 pitches -- nearly three-quarters of them strikes.
"It wasn't probably the best I've felt this year physically," he said. "It wasn't my best day out there. But I was just trying to find a way. If one pitch wasn't working, you go to the next one. You try to give your team a chance to win. And I feel like I did a pretty good job of that."
When Garcia did get in trouble, instead of letting innings get away from him, he locked down. He worked around a one-out double in the third, a leadoff single in the fifth and a leadoff double in the seventh without any runs. He kept the damage to a minimum when the Cubs put four straight men on base in the sixth.
In short, he looked like a maturing pitcher, one who handles adversity with aplomb. He improved to 5-0 and lowered his ERA to 1.89.
"That's always a good sign," said acting manager Joe Pettini, "when a pitcher comes out of the bullpen from warming and doesn't have his best stuff but is still able to go out and pitch the game that he did. It seems like more often than not Jaime has that one inning that he gets into trouble, but today with the bases loaded, he gets the popup and the strikeout to get out of it. That was huge. That keeps them from getting back in the game."
Garcia never looked rattled in his first career start at Wrigley Field. He tied for the league lead in wins and is second to Josh Johnson in ERA.
"He gets those four pitches," said the Cubs' Jeff Baker. "He commands a fastball on both sides of the plate, he has a good changeup, he's got a good curveball and slider. You don't see the ball well off him, and the guy's a competitor. He comes right at you. It's not like you can take pitches and he'll get in trouble."
Garcia's offense torched Cubs starter Casey Coleman and the relievers who came behind him. Cardinals hitters pounded out 16 hits, drew five walks and struck out four times -- though only once before the ninth inning. Jay, Colby Rasmus and Yadier Molina each had three hits, while Tyler Greene doubled and drew two walks. Seven Cardinals reached base by hit or walk at least twice.
It was the ninth straight series that the Cardinals either won or split. They improved to 22-16 on the year, 1 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Reds heading into a weekend series in Cincinnati. Chicago is in fourth place, five games out. The Cardinals have gone 20-10 since a 2-6 start to the season.
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.