BALTIMORE -- Still searching for stability in plenty of areas, the Cardinals have found it in one important place: the front of their starting rotation. Chris Carpenter pitched like an ace once again on Wednesday night, delivering a hard-fought complete game as St. Louis beat the Orioles, 5-1, at Camden Yards.
The Cardinals reached the halfway point of the regular season with a 43-38 record and pulled back to within one game of the first-place Brewers in the National League Central. They did it behind a vintage Carpenter, who has gone eight or more innings four times in his past seven starts.
"Top-of-the-rotation stuff," manager Tony La Russa said.
The St. Louis offense clicked for a second straight night behind Carpenter's second complete game of the season and the 31st of his career. It was his first complete-game win since Sept. 30, 2010. The Cardinals secured their second series win in the past three weeks by taking the first two games of their Interleague series with the O's. They had lost 12 of 15 before coming to Baltimore.
Carpenter surrendered some hard contact in the early going but got more impressive as he went along, and even in the early innings he made big pitches at big moments. He dodged an extremely dangerous fifth-inning jam, keeping the Orioles off the board after they loaded the bases with no outs. The right-hander threw 132 pitches, which was the second-highest of his career.
It was badly needed by a team short of available relievers. When La Russa was asked before the game who might serve as his closer on Wednesday, the second name he mentioned was Carpenter, his starting pitcher.
And Carpenter delivered, though it wasn't always obvious he'd do so. The O's started the fifth with three straight singles, the last one on a ball David Freese couldn't corral at third, to bring up the 2-3-4 hitters in their batting order. But Nick Markakis hit into a 1-2 force play before Adam Jones and Vladimir Guerrero flied out, preserving the Cardinals' 5-1 lead and setting Carpenter on his way.
"He made good pitches, but we had some pitches to hit," Jones said. "It doesn't really matter what happened, what he did. We've got to get the runs in."
Carpenter got better after that. The Orioles managed only two more baserunners on the night, one on a two-out, ninth-inning error by Matt Holliday. Carpenter got more grounders as the game went on, and it became clearer and clearer that the game was his to finish off.
"It was a lot of fun," he said. "No question about it. I got myself into a jam there in the fifth, but I was able to get out of it with some good pitches. From that point on, I controlled counts, controlled the game. I felt like I did [that] the whole game. They took some good swings there in that one inning early, just ambushing me a little bit, but it was an awesome game all around."
Meanwhile, he also got some run support. Carpenter had a 2-0 lead in the second inning and a 4-0 advantage in the third, unfamiliar territory for a pitcher who hasn't gotten a lot of help from his offense this year. Carpenter entered the game with the 19th-lowest run support among National League starters.
So he's taken things into his own hands. Over his past three starts, Carpenter has thrown 380 pitches over 24 innings. The Cardinals have won four of his past six starts after going 2-9 in his first 11.
"The guy's throwing 95 [miles per hour] with 120 pitches in," said Skip Schumaker. "His cutter is working, his curveball, you know he's the ultimate competitor and the most prepared guy. When his stuff is right and he's healthy, which he is, he's our ace. That's what we expect."
On the offensive side, the biggest blow came from Colby Rasmus, who kept up a torrid pace with a two-run homer in the second. With one out and a man on first, Rasmus at first showed bunt, before turning on a Chris Jakubauskas fastball and driving it 408 feet. It was Rasmus' third homer in five games, more than he had in his previous 54 games.
Schumaker added a single, double, RBI and two runs in a rare start in the leadoff spot, while Nick Punto doubled and scored in his second game back from the disabled list. The Cards made the most of their chances, turning eight hits into five runs.
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.