PITTSBURGH -- Allen Craig was looking for his first hit in two months, hoping to cast aside an 0-for-11 slide that included a lengthy stay on the disabled list after he fractured his right kneecap in early June.
He definitely needed this one.
Craig went 4-for-5 and Yadier Molina added three hits for the Cardinals, who salvaged the final game of a three-game set in hopes of staying within shouting distance of the front-running Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.
"That was definitely a big win to kind of stop things there," Craig said. "It would have been tough to lose this game, definitely."
Craig had struggled since his return from the disabled list last Wednesday, going hitless in nine at-bats. He worked the count full against Paul Maholm in the first abd then -- perhaps a little anxious to bust loose -- swung at a pitch near his eyes even though Albert Pujols was on deck.
Maholm heard the ball come off the bat and figured it was a routine popup to center. It wasn't. The ball sailed into the Cardinals bullpen to give St. Louis a quick 2-0 lead.
"I don't know why he swung, he should have just at taken it for a walk," Maholm said. "But obviously it looked good to him."
Craig added a solo shot in the seventh off Brad Lincoln for his first career multihomer game. It was the kind of positive reinforcement he needed after a longer than expected visit to the DL.
He anticipated being out three to six weeks after slamming into the wall in Houston. It was nearly two months before he was back on the field.
"It's tough to put a timetable on something like that," Craig said. "It's a unique injury in a unique spot and eight weeks is what it was. I busted my butt to get my legs strong and rehab."
St. Louis manager Tony La Russa would like to play Craig more often, but it's difficult when the team is healthy. But with a left-hander on the mound, La Russa figured Craig needed to start.
"When he's healthy, I've said it several times, I'd like to get him into the lineup," La Russa said. "This was the perfect time -- a left-hander, give Lance (Berkman) two days off, but it's no hunch. The guy's already proven he deserves some playing time."
Kyle Lohse (11-7) picked up his 99th career victory by pitching seven solid innings. The right-hander allowed two runs and five hits, struck out seven and walked one.
Maholm (6-14) dropped his fifth straight decision, giving up three runs -- all in the first -- and eight hits in five innings.
Though Maholm's numbers are solid this season, he's consistently run into trouble in the first inning. He started the game giving up a team-high 15 first-inning runs this season, and St. Louis wasted little time adding to that total.
Craig's drive kickstarted the offense, and the Cardinals made it 3-0 on a run-scoring single by Molina.
Lohse nearly matched Maholm's early troubles, loading the bases in the bottom of the first. But he escaped when Ryan Ludwick's sinking line drive to right field was corralled by Craig.
"It was a little scary there in the first, but after that I felt like I got rolling," Lohse said.
Lohse settled down after that, retiring nine straight at one point and striking out the side in the fourth.
"That was a product of getting to what I've been doing all year when I'm successful: just getting ahead of guys and coming right at them," Lohse said. "It's not going to happen every time like that, but when you're getting ahead of guys and making them swing at your pitches, you're usually going to have more success than not."
Lohse's only mistake came when Jose Tabata hit a two-run homer to right in the fifth.
There was some sentiment to Tabata's hit. The game marked his first career start in right field and he has spoken openly about emulating legendary Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, who played the same position in Pittsburgh for 18 seasons.
Tabata's home run sailed just over the "Clemente Wall" -- adorned with Clemente's retired No. 21 -- but the joy would be temporary.
St. Louis increased its lead to 4-2 when Ryan Theriot scored on Lohse's groundout in the sixth.
Some sloppy Pittsburgh defense in the eighth helped the Cardinals put it out of reach. First baseman Garrett Jones bobbled a routine grounder by Jon Jay, who later scored when third baseman Brandon Wood threw wild to first trying to get a hustling Craig.
That was more than enough for the Cardinals, who have seen first place fall almost out of sight this month. They began August 2½ games behind the Brewers but have failed to find any traction.
They were hoping to get better during a six-game swing through Pittsburgh and Chicago, but the trip started with a thud. The Cardinals were dominated on Monday night and let a late lead slip away on Tuesday when they eventually lost on Jones' 11th-inning homer off Arthur Rhodes that landed in the Allegheny River.
There were no such issues on Wednesday thanks to Craig's rare power surge.
Both teams are off Thursday. Pittsburgh opens a three-game series with the Cincinnati Reds on Friday. Kevin Correia will start for the Pirates, looking for his 13th victory of the season. ... St. Louis continues a six-game road trip in Chicago. ... Pujols entered with a .583 career batting average against Maholm but managed just one hit in three trips against the lefty on Wednesday.