ST. LOUIS -- Michael Wacha has been thrust right in the middle of a relentless National League Central race, and the rookie hurler hasn't faltered under the spotlight.
With a steady barrage of run support, Wacha turned in another gem as the Cardinals completed a convincing series sweep of the Pirates with a 9-2 win on Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium.
After falling behind with a 2-5 road trip in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the Cardinals have flipped the standings in their favor, carrying a 1 1/2-game lead on the Bucs into Monday's off-day.
The Cardinals now end the season with a stretch of 19 games, 16 of which are against teams with below-.500 records, while the Pirates and Reds are scheduled to play each other six more times. The Reds loom 1 1/2 games back in the NL Central.
"They can sense where we are in the season," manager Mike Matheny said. "And they can sense the excitement that comes with this kind of baseball this time of year and the energy that's coming through our clubhouse through the fans."
The issues that have plagued the Cardinals in losses this season resurfaced this weekend, but they occurred in the opposing dugout as the Pittsburgh offense went cold and its starters struggled to pitch deep into games.
The Cardinals outhit the Pirates 34-20 and the St. Louis starters outlasted the Bucs 20 innings to 10 2/3 in the three-game set. The win, which was witnessed by 40,156 fans at Busch Stadium, marked the final regular-season meeting between the clubs -- Pittsburgh took the season series 10-9.
"That was our last opportunity to play those guys," Matt Carpenter said. "We needed to come out and have a big series, and I don't think you can have a bigger one than getting the sweep like we did. There's still a lot of baseball left, but that was a real good start to what we've got in mind to finish this month off."
"We didn't get off the mound very well, then had 17 scoreless innings. That's a bad combination, tough combination to overcome," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We'll be in Texas [on Monday], out of St. Louis. [We've] got to go play. Season doesn't stop. We've got every opportunity to get things back up rolling in a good way."
Wacha rolled through the Pirates' dangerous lineup with ease, allowing just two hits and two walks over seven shutout innings, matching ace Adam Wainwright, who tossed a two-hit, two-walk, seven-inning outing Saturday. Though Wainwright edged the rookie in strikeouts, eight to two.
The 22-year-old right-hander rejoined the rotation amid a stretch of 13 games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and has yet to allow a run in two starts. He posted a three-hit, two-walk performance against the Reds on Sept. 3, and Sunday's two-hitter.
"I've played in some big-time games before in college," Wacha said. "This is a little bit different, for sure, but it's helped me going to [Texas] A&M and playing in those big-time games. It got me prepared for it, I guess. I just try not to think too much. I go out there and just trust my stuff."
Working with a quick five-run lead, Wacha tossed two perfect innings before giving up his first hit in the third, a ground-rule double. He walked a batter in the fourth and fifth, but the Cardinals erased each by turning double plays.
"I felt pretty good, but you know, those guys putting up five runs in those first two innings makes my job a lot easier, that's for sure," Wacha said. "I just tried to go out there and attack the zone and it ended up working out pretty well."
Wacha has tossed 19 2/3 scoreless innings, dating back to his last three relief appearances in August, tying Joe Kelly for the longest consecutive streak by a Cardinals pitcher this season.
The Cardinals knocked around Pittsburgh starter Charlie Morton for 1 2/3 innings before the right-hander exited with discomfort in his left foot. Although Morton probably wouldn't have lasted much longer as he had already surrendered five earned runs on six hits, two walks and a wild pitch.
"[Morton] was a pitch away in certain situations, but we just kept fighting him and making him get the ball over the plate to be able to jump on him early," said Carpenter. "Wacha came out and did a great job, kept the lead and pitched great with the lead. We were able to bury them pretty quickly."
The St. Louis offensive attack was on full display in the fifth when it plated four runs on five singles, a double and a walk against three Pittsburgh pitchers. With its RBI leader Allen Craig sidelined with a sprained foot, St. Louis enjoyed production from all over the lineup. The formerly slumping Pete Kozma went 2-for-3 with a walk from the No. 8 spot, and even Wacha pitched in with a two-run single. Kozma's 18 doubles batting eighth are the most for the Cardinals in that spot since Matheny hit 19 in 2004.
"Next man up. The next guy is going to get it done," Matheny said. "They're doing the little things right and they're driving the ball when they get opportunities. ... They've been relentless. That's the kind of offense that we want to be for the remainder of the way, and we should be."
Chad Thornburg is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.