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St. Louis Cardinals' Matt Carpenter is congratulated at the dugout after hitting a two-run home run in the second inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

KANSAS CITY • With a chance to turn a reassuring road trip into an assertive one, the Cardinals had a little of the pitching they expect, a lot of the offense they want, and a dash of the DL that always seems to be lurking around the corner.

Matt Carpenter homered for the sixth time in seven games and launched the Cardinals toward a 7-0 romp against Kansas City on Friday at Kauffman Stadium. The intrastate, interleague series gives the Cardinals their best chance yet to take a significant stride toward relevancy in the playoff race, and it opened with rookie lefty Austin Gomber securing his first major-league win in a game he started. Daniel Poncedeleon got his first major-league save with three innings of relief. The game neared an end with rookie Yairo Munoz leaving the game because of a wrist sprain. His replacement, Adolis Garcia, another rookie, looped his first major-league hit in the eighth inning.

So it goes for the Cardinals – breaks here, bruises there.

The Cardinals won their fifth time in six games, and they did so with a continuation of the persistent, productive offense that has muscled them through this road trip. Carpenter’s home run came soon after Paul DeJong led off the five-run second inning with a home run. Harrison Bader had a single in that inning and homered in the sixth inning to give the Cardinals blasts from both the leadoff spot and the No. 9 spot in the order. Yadier Molina contributed two doubles, and designated hitter Jose Martinez had three hits and reached base four times.

The Cardinals only went two innings without a runner on base, and that was while KC reliever Glenn Sparkman was trying to survive innings vacated by the starter.

Munoz appeared to injury his wrist during his sixth inning at-bat. On the first pitch from Sparkman, Munoz winced. That brought the Cardinals’ trainer and third base coach Jose Oquendo immediately to his side, near the batter’s box. He was lifted for Garcia. The severity of the injury was not immediately known. He was being examined at the ballpark. If the Cardinals are moved to place Munoz on the disabled list, outfielder Tyler O’Neill began his rehab assignment at Class AAA Memphis on Friday as he works toward an eligible return.

This weekend series sets up as the Cardinals’ best chance yet to do more than talk about or tease a compelling entry into the wild-card derby.

While they visit Kansas City and the moribund Royals, who are more than 30 games out in the American League wild card race and school supplies are still full price, the two wild-card leaders in the National League play each other. With a win at home against Milwaukee, the Atlanta Braves would move into a virtual tie atop the NL wild-card race with the Brewers. The schedule gives the Cardinals a vulnerable opponent in KC and the guarantee that if they win they’ll gain ground on some team, be it Atlanta or Milwaukee.

The Cardinals entered the weekend series trailing the Braves by 3 ½ games for the second wild card berth with two teams, Arizona and the Dodgers, to leapfrog.

The more linear race for the Cardinals is against Milwaukee. A loss to the Braves on Friday night would drop their lead ahead of the Cardinals to 3 ½ games. The division rivals have six games remaining against each other – all of them at Busch Stadium. Clicking off series win after series win after series win has put the Cardinals in position to take a serious chomp into the wild-card standings with more than just another series win in Kansas City.

Offense has been a good place to start.

The Cardinals reached the All-Star break with an average of 4.26 runs per game. That has jumped to 4.71 runs per game in the first 21 games since the break, and a major reason isn’t the commitment to a set lineup but a devotion to approach. The Cardinals are inflating their OBP. The Cardinals have cut down their strikeouts, 8.38 per game to 7.19, and upped their walks, nudging their 21st-rated pre-break OBP of .315 to .345 in the three weeks since the break. That ranks fifth in the majors.

The many varied ways that allows the Cardinals to generate runs was showcased in the second inning Friday as they thumped Royals starter Burch Smith for five runs before he could get a third out. Paul DeJong opened the inning with his 11th home run. Jedd Gyorko followed with the Cardinals’ first walk of the game. Two groundouts followed, and it took Smith eight pitches to get those. The Cardinals’ ninth hitter, Bader, represented an escape hatch for Smith – a chance to sneak free of a problematic inning with only the one run allowed.

Bader singled.

Smith stepped into quicksand.

With Bader on base, Carpenter hit his 32nd home run of the season, but only his fifth with a runner on base. That extended the Cardinals’ lead to 4-0, and they kept pressing. Yadier Molina doubled and scored on Jose Martinez’s two-out single. By the time the inning ended, the Cardinals had a walk, two homers, two singles, a double, and not a strikeout. Nine batters went to the plate in that inning, and a total of 18 batters would come to the plate in the game before the Cardinals struck out for the first time. By that point, they lead 5-0 and had 10 baserunners.

The lead gave Gomber ample elasticity to get through his five innings. He got himself out of trouble before plunging right back in the third inning. Adalberto Mondesi opened the inning with a triple – the first hit off Gomber – and then he spectated from third as the Cardinals lefty struck out the No. 9 batter and got a shallow flyout from leadoff hitter Whit Merrifield. With two outs and Mondesi picnicking at third, Gomber walked one batter and hit another to suddenly load the bases for cleanup hitter Hunter Dozier. He reset and got a fly ball to end the inning.

On his way to the win, Gomber (2-0) flashed the spectrum of pitches that hastened his rise this season – and made him so interesting as a reliever during that moonlight in the bullpen earlier this season. Gomber struck out the second batter he faced on an 80-mph curveball. In the fourth inning, after two meek singles, Gomber muzzled the Royals by striking out No. 8 hitter Ryan O’Hearn with an elevated fastball.

O’Hearn swung under the 88-mph offering.

That was Gomber’s third and final strikeout.

***

With DH, Cardinals flex their depth and a new look ahead of Carpenter

After weeks of different combinations and alterations to the lineup, a visit to an American League ballpark this weekend gives Cardinals manager Mike Shildt a chance, for the first time, to write a lineup that satisfies both offense and defense — and, just maybe, a peek at what a twist to the usual lineup might look like.

Access to a designated hitter gave Shildt the ideal spot to start Jose Martinez and see what the Cardinals’ resurgent offense looks like at its current deepest.

“It’s fun,” he said. “Regardless of who is in there right now, I like our lineup.”

It has, after all, been the change agent as the Cardinals won four series in a row, including the first two on this three-city road trip. Since the All-Star break, the Cardinals have scored the seventh-most runs in the majors (99), hit .268 (eighth), and slugged .425 (14th). They have seen a spike in their OPS from .714 in the first half to .770 in the first 21 games of the second half. The greatest change has been in the on-base percentage, which has hopped from .315 (21st) to .345 (fifth).

Shildt credited the clubhouse and how “players have really taken heed to quality at-bats.” Each day, the coaches do a post-op on the previous game with acknowledgement of two-strike hits, opposite-field hits and other hits that were either timely or ideal for the situation. Whatever the cause, the result has been an offense less reliant on home runs and more relentless when it comes to generating baserunners.

“We had 19 straight innings where we had somebody on base; (that’s) every inning over two games,” Shildt said before listing recent games when the Cardinals forced opponents to throw far more pitches than the league average. “I’d like to think that we have more of the ability to create runs or score runs regardless of circumstance. Clearly, we hit the ballpark and we feel pretty good about that. It’s a quick and immediate return on investment.”

The second inning Friday captured the reward and riddle of revival.

The Cardinals sent nine batters to the plate, scored five runs, got two homers, and also knocked Kansas City’s starter from the game with the help of a walk and two other base hits. Matt Carpenter played his usual part in the jubilee with the 32nd home run of his season, but only the fifth with a runner on base. As the team’s entrenched leadoff hitter, Carpenter has eight leadoff homers and 19 other solo home runs. Shildt has toyed with the idea of batting the pitcher eighth for this reason – to get a position player immediately ahead of Carpenter – but recently played down his likelihood of doing it.

He agreed the AL rules offer a hint of what that would look like.

In the second inning, No. 9 hitter Harrison Bader extended the scoring with a two-out, RBI single, and he was on base for Carpenter’s homer. A two-run inning mushroomed into a four-run jag just like that. Shildt has canvassed his coaches for their opinion on batting the pitcher eighth, and in the coming week or so intends to talk to former manager Tony La Russa about why he did it. Until Monday, the DH is the answer.

It’s a new look at a question Carpenter’s production invites.

“We just keep looking at it and I can’t get my head around the overall benefit of why we would do it,” Shildt said. “When you look at what it looks like it turns out to be a relative wash. … I enjoyed the process of looking at it. Nothing has swayed me to pull the trigger.”

WAINwright has brief stint

Adam Wainwright (elbow) faced hitters during a 20-pitch game simulation at Jupiter, Fla., on Friday and responded well to the spring training-like workout. He will increase his pitch count in a similar session before advancing toward a game appearance, possibly on the back fields at the team’s spring training complex. … Carlos Martinez (shoulder strain) has intensified his throwing program in recent days and after returning to St. Louis on Thursday will continue his strides toward throwing off the mound – possibly as early as this coming homestand. … Outfielder Tyler O’Neill (groin) officially began his rehab assignment Friday with Class AAA Memphis.

BREBBIA TO DL

Instead of joining Class AAA Memphis’ bullpen and attempting to pitch through soreness in his right forearm, John Brebbia has been placed on the 10-day disabled and his option from his past week was voided. That does keep Brebbia, officially, in the major leagues. The reliever has been experiencing discomfort near his wrist that has affected his grip and the feel he can get with his fingers. The team, according to an official, does not believe the soreness emanates from his right elbow, which would be more alarming.

No significant structural damage was found, and he has been prescribed rest before he’ll resume throwing and reappear again later this season.

VISITING NEGRO LEAGUE MUSEUM

On their off day Thursday, Cardinals coach Willie McGee, three players and broadcaster Mike Claiborne took a guided tour of the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Paul DeJong, Bader and pitcher Jack Flaherty joined McGee. The museum, founded in 1990 and opened in 1997, features artifacts stretching back to the late 1800s, and it was in those early days of the Negro Leagues that something happened that caught Bader’s ear.

“You get a clear feel for how intertwined the Negro Leagues are with the importance of baseball, and it was the Negro Leagues that went to Japan — before Babe Ruth,” Bader said, referencing tours that took place in the 1920s and 1930s before Ruth’s 1934 jaunt. “Think about that and you have a sense of the reach the Negro Leagues had.”

STATE COLLEGE RE-UP

The Cardinals have extended their player development contract (PDC) with rookie-level Class A State College (Pa.) in the New York-Penn League. The new deal will push the affiliation through 2020. It continues a long run of stability within in the Cardinals’ minor-league system, which has not had an affiliate change since State College returned to the chain in 2013. The Cardinals own their Class AA, High-A, and GCL affiliates, and they have had long-term connections to rookie-level Johnson City and a renewed connection to Low-A Peoria. The State College club has three first-place finishes since rejoining the Cardinals, a 290-216 record, and league championships in 2014 and 2016. Cardinals first-base coach Oliver Marmol was the manager of the 2014 title team.

Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

dgoold@post-dispatch.com

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