Don't look now, but the Cardinals are only three games behind the Braves in their pursuit of baseball's best record.
St. Louis has won eight of its last 11 tilts to remain in the thick of a closely contested battle for the top spot in the National League. All five NL teams presently slated for a playoff spot are within 4 1/2 games of each other.
The recent stretch has proven to be a much-needed rebound for the Cardinals, who were swept in Atlanta in late July in what evolved into a seven-game skid.
"It was not how we wanted to have the series go," said Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny. "But they played very well. They've got all the different parts. They've got good starting [pitching], they've got a good 'pen and a strong lineup. They've won a lot of games this year. We weren't happy the way that we played and the way we walked out of Atlanta."
As has been the case with the Cards this season, though, the team has found ways to fight back. That losing streak commenced a 4-13 stretch that preceded the club's current surge.
"You just keep grinding and good things happen," Matheny said. "It does become contagious. And the guys just kind of have that good feel. Even when we're down, you can tell that they believe in each other, they believe in our ability to get back into it if they each just do their part, and that's what we've been doing."
The Braves will be similarly tested in the coming weeks without right fielder Jason Heyward, who suffered a fractured jaw on Wednesday and is expected to miss four to six weeks.
"That's a tough one to replace, not only what he does for you offensively but what he does defensively for you," said manager Fredi Gonzalez. "This guy is a Gold Glover, and you see him make plays a lot of other outfielders don't make."
Heyward had batted .345 with a .418 on-base percentage in 23 games since moving into the leadoff hole in late July. Gonzalez said Jordan Schafer and Andrelton Simmons will occupy the spot in Heyward's absence. Schafer went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts in Thursday's 6-2 loss in the series opener at Busch Stadium.
"We know what we're missing," said third baseman Chris Johnson. "The guy has covered us for the last three weeks. We're going to have to step up. We're going to have to have guys get on base. We're going to have to have somebody step into that leadoff spot. We're going to have to play good defense out there, because everything that was in the air, he caught."
When the teams reconvene on Friday, Braves right-hander Kris Medlen (10-11, 3.71 ERA) will square off against Adam Wainwright (14-7, 2.66 ERA), who will face the team that drafted him with the 29th overall pick in 2000.
Braves: Beachy to see doctor
Southpaw Mike Minor will start on Sunday in place of Brandon Beachy, who will visit Dr. James Andrews on Monday. Andrews performed Tommy John surgery on Beachy's right elbow 14 months ago.
Gonzalez noticed that Beachy's velocity took a tumble during the sixth inning of the hurler's most recent start on Tuesday against the Mets.
"We just didn't like the way that last inning went in New York," Gonzalez said. "Who knows better about that kind of stuff than the guy who did the surgery?"
Cardinals: Wong impressing skipper
Rookie Kolten Wong struck out on three pitches in a pinch-hit appearance on Thursday, but Matheny said he is pleased with what the second baseman has shown on the field. Wong is 5-for-10 with three stolen bases in his last two starts.
"He came in and was a great spark for us, especially what we saw [last series] in Milwaukee," Matheny said. "He looks comfortable in the field defensively. Get a guy on base that you know can steal a bag and just created some havoc out there. It's nice having that weapon."
Wong is the 19th rookie to appear for the Cardinals this season, the most among Major League teams and the most the franchise has used in a season since 1997.
• Wainwright is 3-1 with a 3.55 ERA against the Braves at home in his career.
• Cardinals rookie reliever Kevin Siegrist has allowed only two runs on nine hits in 27 innings this season (0.67 ERA).