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STL@WSH: Garcia grabs grounder, throws for an out

WASHINGTON -- There were plenty of spring prognostications that identified the Cardinals' rotation as a potential weak point. Questions about Jaime Garcia's health, Shelby Miller's readiness and Lance Lynn's ability to repeat last year's success made storylines.

Twenty-one games into the 2013 season, it's fair to put, at minimum, a pause on all such concerns.

Carried again by strong starting pitching, the Cardinals capped a six-win road trip with a three-game sweep of Washington. Wednesday's 4-2 victory in front of 33,694 fans at Nationals Park featured Garcia outdueling prized right-hander Stephen Strasburg before handing the lead over to a suddenly stabilized bullpen.

It sent the Cards back to St. Louis with a 6-3 road trip and a 13-8 record, despite having played only six home games.

"It's an impressive trip for us really," manager Mike Matheny said. "I love the life we had today. We walked into that dugout and they were chirping. I'm not sure if the coffee was strong, I'm not sure exactly what was going on. But they were so into the game today. And after a team just finishing a long road trip after a long road month, to come out with that kind of life -- it was like a bunch of kids loving the game."

With the win, the Cardinals completed their first three-game sweep at Nationals Park and their first against the Nationals/Expos franchise since 1969.

"That tells you how good we are," catcher Yadier Molina said. "We can beat anybody. I don't care what the media says about us. We have a good team. We proved it."

The Cardinals proved, too, that their bullpen, with its current makeup, can settle. It did so this series, with Edward Mujica saving all three games for a club that arrived in Washington with only three saves in its first 18 games. His save on Wednesday followed relief appearances from Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal.

Matheny's ability to set up the bullpen as desired was a credit to Garcia, who followed dominant performances by Miller and Adam Wainwright with a rebound effort of his own. After lasting only three innings in his last start, Garcia came one out away from finishing six.

"Obviously, they've done a great job," Garcia said of his rotation mates. "But when it comes your day to pitch, you have to focus on what you can control and going out there and giving your team a chance to win. Overall, we've been doing a pretty good job."

The Cardinals raced out to a 3-0 lead in the first, while Garcia allowed only two baserunners through the first five frames. The Nationals stirred for the first time in the sixth when Strasburg and Denard Span led off with consecutive singles. A pair of groundouts pushed across one run, and Garcia's walk to Tyler Moore loaded the bases.

Enter Kelly, who halted the threat by striking out Ian Desmond. When the Nationals put the tying runs on base again in the seventh, Kelly answered by striking out pinch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi. That started a double play finished by Molina's perfect throw to stop Jhonatan Solano from swiping second.

"I like coming in and trying to save people runs," Kelly said. "I'm a really competitive person. Every time I go out there, I give it my 110 percent, but you get more of a rush … in a big situation."

After making just four appearances in the team's first 18 games, Kelly pitched twice during this three-game set. In both instances, he was the bridge Matheny sought to get to Rosenthal and Mujica. With Mitchell Boggs still working to find his way, Kelly might have just found his new role.

"We have a pretty good weapon that's been sitting down there," Matheny said of Kelly. "I said before hats off to him for staying sharp. But hats off to him, too, for the mental side of being prepared when the opportunity came."

Kelly's work helped to preserve Garcia's second win and the Major League best 13th for a Cardinals rotation that has a collective 2.35 ERA. That is at least a half-a-run lower than every other rotation in baseball.

The starters have allowed 35 runs in 21 games -- including only three runs in 20 2/3 innings this series. Washington finished with more strikeouts (20) than hits (13) against Miller, Wainwright and Garcia.

Overall, the Cardinals' five-man rotation has limited opponents to a .253 batting average with runners in scoring position. The Nats were 0-for-7 in such spots on Wednesday

"I'm not surprised at all," Matheny said. "You look at the guys we have, I don't know how you could give us that much doubt."

Stellar starting pitching helped the Cardinals pull off a sweep of a series in which they didn't overwhelm with run support. The Cardinals scored nine times, but maximized their opportunities by continuing to have success with runners in scoring position.

Hitting with the bases full in the first, Molina drove home two runs. A third scored off Strasburg when a high throw from Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon sapped the home team's chances at an inning-ending double play.

Strasburg settled from there, allowing only two other hits over the next six innings.

"The thing that the Cardinals did is they've got their boppers in the middle, but you look at guys like [Daniel] Descalso, [Shane] Robinson and [Pete] Kozma, they grind you out," Strasburg said. "They're not going to give in. They're not going to just strike out."

The two clubs traded runs in the eighth, with Matt Holliday's infield RBI single briefly giving St. Louis a three-run cushion. Rosenthal served up a homer to Jayson Werth in the bottom half of the frame. He answered with back-to-back strikeouts to end the inning.

Mujica pitched a 1-2-3 ninth and ended up retiring all eight batters he faced in the series.

"They've had a few games here where they've been very good," Matheny said. "It was a nice series for the 'pen."

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