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08/11/10 1:11 AM ET

Cards draw even with Reds in NL Central

Benches empty early; St. Louis' offense comes up big

CINCINNATI -- Maybe experience matters. Maybe it doesn't. But it's hard to ignore the fact that in a huge game with a charged atmosphere on Tuesday night, the reigning National League Central champion Cardinals kept their composure while the upstart Reds played ugly.

Shaking off a first-inning fracas, a somewhat erratic showing by their starting pitcher and a hostile crowd of 36,964, St. Louis turned in one of its better games of the year en route to an 8-4 win over Cincinnati at Great American Ball Park. The Redbirds reclaimed a share of first place, and ensured themselves of their first winning road trip since early April.

And they did it on a night that could easily have gone awry at several different points.

"I've been around a long time," manager Tony La Russa said, "but I guarantee you I haven't had too many games in all the years I've managed that were in this category of just reaching down there deep and just gutting it out and playing baseball. This was as good an exhibition of that as any I've ever been around."

La Russa and Reds manager Dusty Baker were ejected after the brouhaha, but no players were tossed.

The Cardinals kept up a persistent offensive attack, scoring in four different innings and tallying three runs in two different frames. Their bullpen bent but never broke, holding a lead over nearly four full innings at a ballpark that can be utterly treacherous for pitchers. They played crisp defense, ran the bases aggressively and effectively and in just about all facets looked like a championship club.

Before Cards starter Jaime Garcia threw his first pitch, an argument between Brandon Phillips and Yadier Molina escalated into a full-scale melee, with both benches and bullpens emptying. The genesis of the imbroglio came a day earlier, when Phillips told a reporter that he "hates" the Cardinals.

Despite the seven-minute delay, Garcia came out dealing, putting down the first six Reds hitters in order. By the middle of the second, he had a 2-0 lead. Felipe Lopez doubled and scored in the first, and Molina issued an emphatic response to the provocation with a solo homer to left field.

"We came to play," Molina said. "We came to win the series today, and I was ready to play the game. He threw me the fastball up and I put a good swing on it."

The Reds tied the contest in the third, thanks in large part to a pair of Garcia walks, and it stayed 2-2 until the sixth. St. Louis tallied three runs in the sixth and three more in the seventh, aided each time by iffy outfield defense from the Reds.

Matt Holliday had the biggest hit in each inning. In the sixth, with the score tied, he doubled to left field to score Albert Pujols and put the visitors ahead. After the Reds pulled back within a run at 5-4, he laced a two-run single to left field, and Pujols scored from first on the play thanks to Jonny Gomes' wayward throw from left field.

Cueto, the Reds' best pitcher this year, was done after 5 1/3 innings, having allowed five runs.

"I wanted to do a little too much after [the scuffle]," he said through catcher Ramon Hernandez, who was interpreting for him. "I was trying to throw harder maybe, and trying to be so perfect. After that, you want to beat the other team so bad. I was trying to do a little too much."

The Cardinals' offense has been rolling recently, oddly thriving since the trade of Ryan Ludwick. They've scored at least four runs in each of the nine games since the deal, totaling 58 runs for an average of more than 6.4 per game. Since the All-Star break, the Cardinals are averaging more than 5.1 runs per game.

"I think we're taking a lot of relentless at-bats up and down the lineup," La Russa said.

"Everybody is working their at-bats and we're trying to play the whole game. Guys are putting the ball in play when they're supposed to. Sometimes they take a little bigger swing. And even though we had some chases, we're doing a better job of getting the ball in the strike zone. And we've been doing this against really good pitching."

The Cardinals have taken the first two games of the pivotal three-game series, moving back into a first-place tie in the National League Central with their rivals. In fact, the Redbirds actually hold a miniscule lead in the division, thanks to a slightly better winning percentage. They're a season-high 14 games over .500 and 16-8 since the All-Star break.

Tuesday wasn't about trends, though. It was about making the most of a single challenging night, and the Cardinals accomplished that in a big way.

"I think we've got a good group of guys," Holliday said. "We've got guys that love to compete and battle. This kind of atmosphere, I feel like we really embrace and thrive in. It was a fun game. A lot of intensity, playoff-type atmosphere, and we were able to play well."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.