The Cardinals’ 9-2 home stand, which wrapped up Thursday afternoon with a 5-1 win over Chicago Cubs nemesis Jake Arrieta, was more than one that encompassed three more series victories, giving the Cardinals eight series wins in succession after a season-opening two-game split in Chicago.
Because six of the wins came inside the National League Central, stretching their division record to an imposing 16-5, the Cardinals were able to build up a significant cushion over their prime opponents, which means each win almost counted as two.

“When you’re playing teams that you’re competing for the division with, you’re gaining at least a game if you beat them,” said Matt Holliday.

“Any time you beat the teams in your division, it gives you a better chance to win the division.”

That last statement seems simple enough, but the Cardinals left town for Pittsburgh 6 ½ games ahead of the Cubs, who started the day in second place, and also comfortably ahead of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, which are languishing near .500 or below, and they’re already 12 ½ games clear of Milwaukee.

The divisional records are the reason why. Before the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game Thursday night, the Cubs were 11-10 in the division, Cincinnati 12-11, Pittsburgh 8-13 and Milwaukee 7-15.

Chicago came in looking to show it was worthy of contending with the Cardinals, as manager Joe Maddon had thought was very possible. The Cubs, who had at least a three-run lead in every game but one, gave it their best shot and still lost three out of four.

Thursday’s win, before a paid house of 44,472 and choreographed by veteran righthander John Lackey, was like one of those doubleheader sweeps about which Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa always talked. Star players rested — in this case Holliday and Matt Carpenter — and the Cardinals won fairly easily, although closer Trevor Rosenthal, who gained his 10th save, was used in the ninth to rescue Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist when Rosenthal probably didn’t need to pitch.

Carpenter was hitting .333 and Holliday .344, but collectively they were one for 28 (a single by Holliday) against Arrieta, who had a 0.74 earned-run average against the Cardinals in six starts. Manager Mike Matheny spoke of some players needing a day off — it was Carpenter’s first — and of other players needing to play. But Carpenter’s nothing for 13 and Holliday’s one for 15 against Arrieta surely had a part in the decision.

“Well,” said Holliday, “then it was a good day (to sit them).”

Lackey (2-1) threw 80 strikes out of 109 pitches and fanned 10 for the first time as a Cardinal and for the 18th time in his career. In the process of lasting 7 2/3 innings, taking some of the stress off the bullpen, Lackey also got his first hit in 10 at-bats this year, slicing a double past first base, which drove in his first run as a Cardinal, with another scoring on the play on an outfield error.

“At least I don’t have to look at zero (his average) on the board any more,” Lackey said. “I was late and I got lucky.” The Cardinals didn’t get Lackey from Boston last July for his bat, and Lackey said he would be delighted not to have to hit in Cleveland next when the Cardinals can use a designated hitter when he pitches. Besides, he said, “I’ve got a one-game hitting streak.”

Matheny said he wasn’t sure if Lackey was celebrating that moment after he came back to the dugout.