ST. LOUIS -- For the second straight night, the Cardinals jumped out to a two-run advantage over the Rockies. On Tuesday that morphed into a one-run loss. This time, St. Louis rode it to a win.
A St. Louis team that, despite its plus-65 run differential, has struggled in close games, earned a 4-1 victory at Busch Stadium on Wednesday with some gutsy pitching by starter Adam Wainwright and another shutdown effort by the suddenly formidable bullpen.
A two-run single in the eighth inning by third baseman David Freese relieved some drama, too, ensuring that the Cardinals would not have to worry about handing closer Jason Motte a one-run lead to protect.
"You want to cushion it a little bit," said Freese. "The hardest thing to do is close out a game."
Until Freese furthered his All-Star Final Vote credentials by driving in his 49th and 50th runs of the season, it appeared as though the Cardinals were going to have to make do with the two runs they plated before the end of the second inning.
A club that finished the first half 12-20 in games determined by two runs or fewer maintained a narrow lead throughout the night with the backing of its pitching. First there was Wainwright, laboring through a 104-pitch, six-inning start.
Then came the 'pen.
A weak link for much of May and June, that bullpen mostly breezed through three innings. Three pitchers combined for six strikeouts. The seventh and eighth were clean, and the ninth interrupted only by a pair of two-out singles. Motte responded by sealing his 18th save with a strikeout.
"We all know, the guys in our bullpen, what we're capable of doing," Motte said. "It's just like anything else -- it's going out and doing it."
Lately, the bullpen has matched potential with results. Since being battered for seven runs on Friday, the relief corps has allowed only two earned runs in 14 2/3 innings. There have been 19 strikeouts and only one walk during that stretch.
Over the last two nights alone, five relievers have posted scoreless appearances.
"I think we've had a lot of examples where that really didn't work out for us, to where we had short leads, small leads and couldn't hold on in the late innings," manager Mike Matheny said. "That really was a nemesis for us early on. So that's a nice piece to start getting in place, and hopefully that will continue."
Maikel Cleto's 1-2-3 seventh gave the hard-throwing righty just his second scoreless appearance in five outings. Marc Rzepczynski followed with what several in the clubhouse touted as his strongest showing yet this season.
Rzepczynski struck out All-Star Carlos Gonzalez, as well as cleanup hitter Tyler Colvin, before wrapping up the inning with a groundout. The key, according to Rzepczynski, was to just let it all go, particularly with his slider.
"Tonight I just tried to throw everything as hard as I could," Rzepczynski said, "and I got good results."
The bullpen's ability to hold a one-run lead was rewarded by the Cardinals' offense in the eighth. Having tallied only two hits since the second inning, the Cardinals strung together three in the two-run frame. Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran led off with singles. The hit was Holliday's third of the night.
When both moved into scoring position, the Rockies opted to take their chances with Freese, who has been pushing his candidacy in the Final Vote balloting. After Yadier Molina was walked to load the bases, Freese laced a single to left to pad the lead.
"Big hit for David, big hit for us," Matheny said. "We needed it."
Earlier there had been a big lift from Wainwright, who was coming off a start in which he was stung for seven runs. His ability to preserve the Cardinals' early lead hinged largely on the work he did with runners in scoring position. He stranded six such runners on the night.
"Today I made pitches with two outs," Wainwright said. "The difference in a great outing and a bad outing, really, is just pitches in a jam at certain times in a game with two outs."
He allowed one run -- that coming in the fifth, his most troublesome inning -- but used some pivotal strikeouts early and defensive aid late to ensure that the Rockies managed no more.
Todd Helton went down swinging with runners on second and third in the first. Wainwright followed Wil Nieves' one-out double an inning later with consecutive strikeouts to end that frame.
The fifth inning got messy after Gonzalez's infield single loaded the bases with two out. Colvin, who had gone deep in each of the first two games of the series, worked a seven-pitch at-bat. Wainwright won it by inducing a popout.
An inning later, a nifty double play begun by a diving Allen Craig at first base saved Wainwright from more potential trouble.
"Allen made an amazing play," Wainwright said. "I'm running over to try and cover [first base] and I'm not thinking about [an out at] second, and I'm definitely not thinking about [an out at] third. That was one of those welcome surprises."
The two-run lead Wainwright had been given to him early. Holliday's first-inning double gave him an RBI for the fifth straight game. Rockies starter Jeremy Guthrie then plunked Jon Jay with the bases full in the second to force in a run.
"Just tried to go in, fastball in," Guthrie said. "[I] didn't want to make a mistake there and got it too far in."
The Cardinals have now won 10 of their last 13 against the Rockies.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.