ST. LOUIS -- For the second time in less than a month, the St. Louis Cardinals started a lengthy stretch of games against winning teams. This time, they did so with a bang instead of a thud.
Joe Kelly pitched six solid innings, and the offense supplied three consecutive two-out, run-scoring doubles in a game-changing fifth inning Thursday night, leading the Cardinals to a 6-2 win over the Atlanta Braves.
Kelly (5-3) scattered seven hits, walked two and fanned three in winning his fifth straight decision since July 12. St. Louis (74-53) moved within a half-game of National League Central leader Pittsburgh, pending the result of the Pirates' game in San Francisco, and improved to 24-29 against winning teams.
The Cardinals went 4-11 in a 15-game stretch against winning teams from July 26 through Aug. 8, starting that skid by being swept in a three-game series at Atlanta.
"There were a lot of positives in this game," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. "This is one of those good wins. Of course, at this time of the year, all of them are good."
St. Louis started a stretch of 17 in a row against winning teams. After the Braves leave town, the Cardinals play 13 straight against their top division rivals, the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh.
Braves left-hander Paul Maholm, making his first start since injuring his hand in a July 20 loss to the Chicago White Sox, allowed five hits and five runs (four earned) over 5 1/3 innings.
Maholm (9-10) was cruising along with a 2-1 lead and one out in the bottom of the fifth when he walked Pete Kozma, hitless in his past 20 at-bats. After Kelly bunted Kozma to second, the Cardinals did what they do best -- produce with men in scoring position.
Matt Carpenter lined his league-leading 42nd double to tie the game. Carlos Beltran rifled a tiebreaking double off the left field wall, and Matt Holliday smoked his own RBI double down the left field line. Just like that, St. Louis led 4-2.
On Holliday's hit, Beltran went back and retouched third, believing he'd missed the bag.
"I just wanted to touch it twice ... it was on my bucket list," Beltran joked. "Seriously, I was watching the ball and I didn't feel it (the first time) with my foot. It would have been terrible if I hadn't gone back."
According to Matheny, last year Beltran alerted him when an opponent failed to touch third base. The Cardinals appealed and the run was erased. Perhaps because of Beltran's instincts, this one was saved, and Kelly again had a lead to work.
Unlike the top of the fifth, when he coughed up a 1-0 edge by yielding Justin Upton's two-run homer to left-center, Kelly rolled through the sixth in order, calling it a night after a career-high 109 pitches.
"After those three doubles in a row, I said to myself, 'Let's shut it down.' I didn't have my good stuff tonight, but I tried to battle," Kelly said. "I kept missing arm-side and it was frustrating, but I just tried to throw it down the middle low and hope they hit some grounders."
David Freese capped the scoring with a two-out, run-scoring single in the seventh.
Atlanta (77-50), which saw its enormous NL East lead over the Washington Nationals fall to 14 games, was playing its first game after right fielder Jason Heyward suffered a fractured jaw when he was beaned Wednesday by New York Mets left-hander Jonathon Niese.
"That took a toll on us yesterday," Upton said of Heyward's injury. "It was rough, but we were back on our feet and ready to play. Kelly just did a good job against us. He had a lot of (velocity) and mixed in his breaking pitches."
Heyward had surgery Thursday to insert two plates into his jaw, and he's expected to miss four to six weeks.
NOTES: Longtime St. Louis radio play-by-play man Mike Shannon is scheduled to return to the booth Sept. 23 when the team opens its last homestand of the regular season. Shannon, 74, underwent surgery Monday to repair his aortic valve. ... Besides activating Maholm and disabling Heyward, the Braves also signed 2B Elliot Johnson and started him, and they assigned INF Phil Gosselin to Triple-A Gwinnett. Johnson's second-inning single snapped an 0-for-31 slump that led to the Kansas City Royals waiving him Tuesday. ... Cardinals RHP Jake Westbrook (back stiffness) might not make his scheduled start Monday night against Cincinnati. Westbrook was knocked around for nine hits and five runs in 4 2/3 innings Wednesday in Milwaukee and hasn't won since July 24, losing four straight decisions.