DENVER -- One of the few things Matt Holliday has excelled at more than hitting against his old team is hitting at his old home.
When he does both for the Cardinals, the Rockies really shudder.
As part of a muscular display of offense by the Cardinals' lineup, Holliday, who debuted and first starred with Colorado, reveled in the free-range openness of Coors Field, thumping his first ball club with four hits and three RBI. The Cardinals romped for an 11-4 victory that vaulted them back alone into first place in the National League Central and put them within a game of the best record in the National League. Holliday reached base all five times he came to the plate, clubbed his 30th double, hit his 20th home run, and tossed in two pivotal catches in left field for embroidery on his complete game.
"I've obviously played a lot of games here," Holliday deadpanned.
The Cardinals had an 8-0 lead before the end of the third inning and that was plenty for Joe Kelly. The righty won for the sixth time in his past seven starts by throwing five shutout innings. Kelly (9-4) has been pitching despite some tightness in his right calf muscle, near his knee. He felt the leg bite on him while running to cover first on a groundball in the fifth inning. After a lengthy meeting on the mound he was replaced after finishing the inning.
Matheny said the 10-0 lead the Cardinals had the time and the chance for injury was enough to remove Kelly from the game. Kelly lobbied to stay in, but understood the caution flag.
"We're so close to the end, pushing for a spot," Kelly said. "Even if it was 0-0 that's still something you don't want to risk."
The teams tied or ahead of the Cardinals all lost before the jubilee of offense starter. The Pirates (87-64) lost to San Diego at home to fall into second place. The surging Nationals swept a doubleheader from Atlanta on Tuesday to drop the Braves to only one game ahead of the Cardinals (88-63) for the best record in the league. That would secure home-field advantage.
"You always want to gain a game," Holliday said. "There's still a lot to play."
Although searching for the semblance of offense that make them the highest-scoring lineup in the league, the Cardinals started this road trip, the last of the regular season, emboldened by an outpouring of runs Sunday. They tagged Seattle for a dozen runs and 19 hits and felt that was the push they needed to roll again.
It took a day to catch up to them.
The Cardinals unloaded for 18 hits against the Rockies, and they were still pushing for runs in the top of the ninth inning. Matt Carpenter scored his third run of the game when he raced home from third on a wild pitch to set the final score.
"You know from watching them that it's kind of what they do," manager Mike Matheny said. "They have a little lull and then they blow up. It would be nice to see it for an extended (time), keep it going for a couple weeks."
On a micro and macro level the numbers were staggering Tuesday.
Holliday entered the game with a .343 average against the club that drafted him in 1998, and pushed his totals to 26 RBIs in 29 games against Colorado. At Coors Field, he's one of the best hitters the hitter-friendly ballpark has ever housed or hosted. His three hits there Tuesday night raised his average from the .357 he brought into the game, and the home run was his 91st at the Denver ballpark. With the Cardinals, Holliday has now hit .415 with seven home runs at Coors Field. His third-inning double and two-run homer in the fifth meant this is his eighth consecutive season with at least 30 doubles and 20 home runs.
Stymied by the Rockies on Monday and held to two runs, the Cardinals strafed the Rockies for a six-run third inning and the lead swelled to 10-0. Every spot in the Cardinals' order had at least two hits by the end of the seventh inning except for Carlos Beltran's cleanup spot. The top three spots in the order had three hits each. Carpenter and Yadier Molina continued to pad their MVP credentials in the early innings. By the time the Cardinals chased Rockies starter Juan Nicasio (8-8) from the game in the third inning, both of the Cardinals' MVP-ready players had two hits and two RBIs.
Carpenter's two-out single in the third inning came on the last pitch Nicasio threw. Six of the Cardinals first 10 runs came with two outs, and they went six-for-10 against the righty with runners in scoring position.
Carpenter's three hits give him a league-leading 188 and his three runs increased his league-lead to 119. He upped his average to .323 which puts him within reach of a strong finish and perhaps a batting title-challenge.
"He's having an MVP-type season," Holliday said.
The Cardinals bullpen didn't have the same clean sweep through their innings as Kelly did before the leg injury. The Rockies tagged rookie Carlos Martinez for four runs. Kelly pitched with leads of 1-0, 2-0, 8-0 and 10-0 as the innings built for him, and for the third time in five weeks he was able to win with one or less strike outs. He has embraced a contact-oriented approach that pushes him deeper into game and relies on his defense.
Holliday made a leaping catch at the warning track in the first inning to steal extra bases away from Todd Helton with two runners on base. In the fifth inning, Holliday slid to take away a line-drive base hit in shallow left field. And in the sixth inning he again was running back toward the wall to take extra bases away from his pal Troy Tulowitzki.
When he got to first base one of the many times Tuesday night, Helton greeted him with a gruff jab about how he didn't mind Holliday getting all the hits, just wanted him to stop taking the hits away.
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