LOS ANGELES -- At risk of being caught in the Wild Card race by a similarly sputtering team, the Cardinals, in a welcome development, overcame continued inefficiency on offense with just enough clutch hitting and a strong performance from rotation returner Lance Lynn.
The timely hitting that eluded the Cardinals during a series sweep in San Diego wasn't exactly bountiful on Thursday. But with an early RBI single by Skip Schumaker and a go-ahead one in the seventh by Allen Craig, it was sufficient enough because of the pitching that backed it.
With what manager Mike Matheny labeled as one of the club's best pitching performances of the season -- certainly accurate given the circumstance and individual involved -- Lynn led the Cardinals to a 2-1 victory in front of 43,309 at Dodger Stadium, boosting St. Louis' lead over Los Angeles for the second National League Wild Card to two games.
"You definitely want to get off to a good start here against a team we're fighting for a Wild Card spot with," said Lynn, now a 15-game winner. "It's good to get in there and do my part and help the team win."
While the Cardinals are not in must-win territory yet, this win was crucial.
It snapped a three-game losing streak and moved the Cardinals to 4-4 in head-to-head games against L.A. this year. That record would come into play in the case of a Wild Card tie.
"It was a big win," said closer Jason Motte, who stranded the potential tying run at second as he sealed his 34th save. "After losing three in a row, especially this late in the season, you know you have to win."
As frustrated as the Cardinals have been with their own offensive deficiencies, they ran into a club with even bigger problems. The Dodgers have scored just three runs in their past 36 innings. They have dropped seven of their last eight games.
That, along with retooled mechanics and a renewed perspective from Lynn, allowed the right-hander to thrive in his first start since Aug. 24. Bumped out of the rotation because of ineffectiveness and suspicion of fatigue, Lynn was pushed back in when Jake Westbrook went down with an oblique injury.
Lynn's readiness for this outing, though, wasn't fostered spur of the moment. It was a process that unfolded over the past three weeks.
"I feel like what happened in August shouldn't have happened," Lynn said. "I got into a funk there and ran into some good teams. That's part of it. But it's all about trying to get out of the funk and helping your team win."
To do that, Lynn went back to more simplified mechanics. He eliminated his over-the-head motion in his delivery on Thursday and was noticeably smoother in his finish. Improved command, velocity and movement all followed.
"I think that just says volumes about him and his makeup," Matheny said. "It was a tough transition for him going into the 'pen. He showed that he learned some things and couldn't wait to get back out there and still prove to everybody that he has the stuff to start."
Lynn limited the Dodgers to five hits and one run, that coming in the first inning, which has been a nemesis to Lynn all season. Of the 65 runs Lynn has given up as a starter this year, 24 have come in the opening frame.
A double play helped Lynn evade additional first-inning damage. He used another double play -- the less traditional strikeout-caught stealing type -- to erase a runner in the fourth. In Lynn's final inning, the sixth, he stranded two by getting Hanley Ramirez on a flyout to deep left-center.
"We're not scoring runs," Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp said. "The pitchers are doing their jobs. One run is not going to win games when we play teams like this. We've got to do a better job of scoring runs."
St. Louis, which won for just the fourth time when scoring two or fewer runs, erased the deficit with three consecutive second-inning singles off Dodgers starter Josh Beckett. Additional run-scoring opportunities against Beckett, though, went untapped.
Consecutive strikeouts left the bases full in the fourth. A chance to push in front in the sixth was sapped when Craig, after leading off the inning with a double, had Yadier Molina's grounder to short hit him as he attempted to move up.
In the seventh, however, Craig came up clutch.
Shane Robinson led off with a pinch-hit walk and moved to second on Matt Carpenter's single. With two out and two strikes, Craig chopped a single through the right side. It improved Craig's batting average with runners in scoring position to .394, the best such mark in the league.
It also gave the Cardinals their first lead since the third inning on Tuesday.
"Just to get a lead in a game was big for us," Craig said. "We know we're in a good spot still with the extra Wild Card. If we keep playing well, it's going to go down to the wire, and we feel like we're going to be right in it."
Even with a still sometimes wasteful offense, the Cardinals helped their chances by doing a lot of other little things right, too.
Molina, Carlos Beltran and Schumaker finished 7-for-10 from the Nos. 5-7 spots in the order. The defense, highlighted by Beltran turning a Beckett single into a putout at first base, played steady. And Molina twice threw out a runner trying to swipe second. The usual late-inning string of relievers -- Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte -- did its part, too.
Where the biggest cap tip went, though, was undisputable.
"It's all second," Matheny said, "to the story of what Lance did to give us a chance today."
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.