PITTSBURGH -- He came off of the disabled list a week before, but Allen Craig's true return to the Cardinals happened Wednesday night.
Craig, who hadn't had a hit in limited playing time since returning to the team on Aug. 10, went 4-for-5 with two home runs, a double and three RBIs as the Cardinals defeated the Pirates, 7-2, at PNC Park.
It was Craig's first multi-homer game, and the four hits were a career high.
"I worked hard while I was in Memphis to get my swing back and get my timing right and getting my legs strong so I could go out there and play," Craig said. "I've been working hard on pretty much everything in my game."
The win allowed the Cardinals to avoid being swept by the Pirates heading into an off-day and a series at Chicago. They did not gain any ground on the NL Central-leading Brewers, but did not lose more either.
"It was definitely a big win to stop things there and end this series with a win," Craig said. "It would have been tough to lose this game."
Craig gave the Cardinals a strong start with a two-run homer to left field in the first inning. The blast scored Rafael Furcal, who had singled to start the game.
Craig was batting second and playing right field, in just his third start since he came back from a fractured knee cap. His last start was on Aug. 11.
"I'd like to get [Craig] in the lineup. It's hard to," manager Tony La Russa said. "This was a perfect time, with a left-hander, and give Lance [Berkman] a few days off.
"It was no hunch. The guy's already proven he deserves playing time."
Matt Holliday walked and scored the third run of the first inning on an RBI single by Yadier Molina.
"That was big," starting pitcher Kyle Lohse said. "Whenever you get runs in the first, you've got to concentrate in going out and shutting it down. I was able to do that. Kind of scarily -- it was a little scary there in the first -- but after that, I felt like I got rolling."
The Pirates loaded the bases off of Lohse in the first with two hits and a walk, but Ryan Ludwick flied out to Craig, who made a nice lunging catch, to end the inning.
"I did get a good jump on it," Craig said. "It was a big play. You have to be able to contribute offensively and defensively."
Lohse did not allow a run until the fifth inning. Ronny Cedeno opened the fifth with a double, and Jose Tabata homered to put the Pirates on the board. Before Cedeno's double, Lohse had retired eight straight Pirates, and he retired eight straight after Tabata's home run.
He ended the night after seven innings with two runs on five hits. He recorded a season-high seven strikeouts, four of which were on a called strike three.
"What a lift he gave us," La Russa said. "Pitching that well, that aggressively."
Pirates starter Paul Maholm allowed three hits after the five-hit first, but was pulled from the game after the fifth inning, having thrown just 83 pitches.
Reliever Brad Lincoln allowed an unearned run in the sixth to give the Cardinals a 4-2 advantage. Ryan Theriot and Jon Jay singled with one out in the sixth and both advanced on a passed ball. Theriot then scored on an RBI groundout by Lohse.
Craig hit his second homer to begin the seventh inning against Lincoln, making the score 5-2.
"He came in and had a big night," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "When you get that kind of production from a part-time player, it always adds a little fuel to your team."
The Cardinals put the game out of reach in the eighth. Molina led off with a single, stole second and scored on a single by pinch-hitter Berkman.
Molina had three singles on the night with an RBI, a stolen base and a run scored, and leads National League catchers with 10 three-hit games.
La Russa said Molina would be more proud of the stolen base than the three-hit game, and joked that the catcher could have been clocked with a sundial.
"When he was walking up the steps, it's all he could talk about," La Russa said.
Craig's last hit came in the eighth inning in the form of a sharp grounder to third base. Brandon Wood threw the ball away and allowed Jay, who had reached on an error earlier in the inning, to score. Though the run scored didn't count as an RBI for Craig, it capped the night for the Cardinals' recovered utility player.
"I feel good," Craig said.
Laura Myers is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.