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STL@PIT: Molina smacks two-run double off scoreboard

PITTSBURGH -- The Cardinals continued to take care of business on Wednesday. Unfortunately for them, the Braves have stopped helping.

St. Louis beat Pittsburgh, 3-2, at PNC Park on Wednesday afternoon in a typically closely contested game between the two National League Central clubs. The Cards finished their season series with a 9-7 advantage over the Pirates, with 10 of the 16 games decided by one or two runs.

However, Atlanta held off Florida in a game that finished slightly earlier in the afternoon, keeping the Redbirds' deficit in the NL Wild Card race at 4 1/2 games with 13 games left on the Cards' schedule. It was the third straight day that the Cardinals neither gained nor lost ground in the chase for the Wild Card.

Atlanta's magic number for eliminating St. Louis in the Wild Card race thus dropped to nine. The Cardinals trail Milwaukee by six games in the NL Central, with an elimination number of eight.

Yadier Molina provided yet another highlight in what is turning out to be a stellar year, driving in two runs with a fourth-inning double that turned out to be the game-winner. Molina has 20 RBIs over his past 25 games and is slugging .512 in that span.

The RBIs were Molina's 59th and 60th of the year. It's the second time he's had at least 60, and he's now two short of his career high, which he set in 2010. Molina has already set personal bests in home runs, doubles and runs, and his slugging percentage and OPS are both well above his previous career highs.

Always known as a star defender, he's emerged as a plus offensive player in 2011 -- and not just for a catcher.

"That's the kind of hitter he's going to be his whole career," manager Tony La Russa said. "Every year, he gets a little stronger, a little smarter."

Molina is also a little better rested. With 119 starts in the Cardinals first 149 games, Molina has gotten about 10 more rest days than in a typical season. That may be paying off as he surges down the stretch.

"I'm ready to play," Molina said. "I think I'm healthy. I feel good."

As for the other half of the game, Molina helped shepherd Edwin Jackson through yet another strong game. The right-hander tossed 6 2/3 innings, allowing two earned runs. He gave up five doubles among eight base hits, but he managed to bear down in tough situations.

Pirates hitters went 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position against Jackson and the Cardinals' bullpen. Pittsburgh had three innings in which it got the leadoff man on base but did not score.

"I was just fortunate a lot of those doubles were the leadoff guy," Jackson said. "Had there been men on base with most of the doubles, then it's a different scenario."

It was the fifth straight game in which Jackson allowed two or fewer earned runs, and the eighth time in 10 starts as a Cardinal. Since an ugly outing in his second start with St. Louis, Jackson has a 2.65 ERA.

The Cardinals didn't have much more luck getting baserunners home than the Bucs did, but they managed to push across just enough against Charlie Morton. Allen Craig's two-out double in the first put the Cards ahead.

After the Pirates tied it in the bottom of the third, the Cardinals took the lead for good in the next half-inning. Morton walked Lance Berkman and hit Craig to open the inning, and Molina drilled a two-run double to right for a 3-1 edge.

"I didn't really feel in a groove," Morton said. "It took me a while to get there. I just kept battling."

The St. Louis bullpen once again was sharp, going 2 1/3 shutout innings behind Jackson. Marc Rzepczynski got a key strikeout to end the seventh with a runner on third base, then struck out the first two batters of the eighth. Octavio Dotel finished the eighth, and Jason Motte closed it out for his seventh save.

The Cardinals are off on Thursday before beginning a four-game series with the playoff-bound Phillies on Friday at Citizens Bank Park. The Braves are also off on Thursday, followed by a weekend series at home against the Mets.

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