PITTSBURGH -- Plenty content to bid adieu to a ballpark that has been especially unwelcoming this season, the Cardinals first ensured that their final regular-season stop at PNC Park would culminate on a high.
The Cardinals head next to Cincinnati, where they'll arrive as co-leaders in the National League Central after silencing the Pirates with a 7-2 victory Sunday afternoon. An offense that had scored just once since Tuesday broke out early, setting Joe Kelly up to shine again in his newly claimed stopper role.
"We really needed this game," said catcher Yadier Molina, "and he showed up."
Pitching with as effective a fastball as he's had this season, Kelly tamed a Pirates offense that had outscored the Cardinals, 12-1, over the first two games of this series. A two-out, sixth-inning run was all the Pirates got against the right-hander, who has won seven straight decisions. No one in the National League has a longer active winning streak.
Kelly, who did not become a permanent rotation member until the first week of July, has been on the mound to halt the three longest losing streaks of the Cardinals' second half. He stopped a seven-game skid Aug. 1, a five-gamer Aug. 11 and, with Sunday's win, ended the most recent losing streak at three.
Kelly's ERA since the start of July is down to 2.16, and the Cardinals have won nine of his 10 starts since asking him to fill the rotation void. Six of those wins have followed a St. Louis loss.
"You just never know who is going to step up and be that guy," manager Mike Matheny said. "This is as good as we've seen him for an extended period of time and it's pretty exciting to think about how much better he can be."
Silenced by Pirates pitching the last two days, the Cardinals jumped on lefty Kris Johnson to take control of the series finale before a sellout crowd of 37,912 could settle in its seats. Five of the first six batters to face Johnson reached, and three eventually scored.
It was just the fourth time in the 16 meetings between these division foes that the Cardinals had managed to strike first.
"It's so important to show up ready to go in the first inning and score," Molina said. "The last two days we've been playing from behind. For us to come up and score runs in the first inning, that was huge."
Matt Carpenter opened the game with a double, which Shane Robinson followed by drawing a walk. Both runners moved up a base on the first of Johnson's two wild pitches in the frame, before Allen Craig delivered an RBI single. With the hit, Craig improved his season average with runners in scoring position to .453.
Molina drove home Robinson with the first of his two singles off Johnson. A sacrifice fly form Jon Jay capped the production. By the end of the inning, Johnson -- who was making his first Major League start -- had already thrown 37 pitches.
"The situation … we had a chance to go two-up [in the division] … the anticipation, maybe there were a little more nerves," Johnson said. "[My] rhythm not good from start -- I made lot of mistakes -- left the ball up and when you do that, you will get hit hard, and that's what happened."
Kelly took that three-run cushion and made it stand despite some troubles of his own in the first. Two of the first three Pittsburgh batters reached, including Andrew McCutchen, who had been held hitless in his first nine at-bats of the series.
Kelly responded by garnering flyouts from Pedro Alvarez and Marlon Byrd.
"Anytime we score, you want to go shut them out to get right back in the dugout," Kelly said. "The first inning is always big. You always want to have a clean inning as a starter so you can get a little rhythm going."
Johnson never found said rhythm and gave way to reliever Jeanmar Gomez after allowing David Freese's two-run double in the third. Freese's hit put the Cardinals ahead, 5-0. Matt Holliday tagged on two more insurance runs in the sixth with a two-out single.
"This place is unreal when they pack it out," Freese said. "It has that playoff environment a little bit. You can tell they love playing here. To come out in a day game after two tough losses and score early, that's what we wanted to do."
With 12 hits Sunday, the Cardinals had a greater output than the first two series games combined. Everyone in the starting lineup finished with at least one except Pete Kozma, who is mired in an 0-for-33 skid.
"It's nice to see some offense that we haven't seen in the last couple days," Matheny said. "just to remind our guys what we have the capability of doing."
Seth Maness and Trevor Rosenthal combined for five strikeouts while dominating in two scoreless innings of relief. Edward Mujica, pitching on five days' rest, allowed a ninth-inning run before closing the afternoon with a double play.
With the win, the Cardinals improve to 6-4 with a week remaining in this 17-game stretch against postseason contenders Atlanta, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. St. Louis will get one more look at the Pirates next weekend during a three-game series.
That one, though, will be at Busch Stadium, where the Cardinals have split six games against the Pirates. That's in stark contrast to the results at PNC Park, where the Cards finish 3-7. Sunday was just the fourth time that St. Louis had scored more than two runs in a game there.
"When you have [to go against Francisco] Liriano and [A.J.] Burnett, they're two of the best starters in the league," Freese said. "To come back and keep the emotions up and the urgency going to come out here and get that win was big for us."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.