ST. LOUIS -- Before a pitch was thrown on Thursday, the matchup hinted at an unbalanced affair. There was Adam Wainwright, on the heels of a two-hit shutout, set to face a Mets club that had won just twice in its past 10 games. Opposing him would be a pitcher who had been knocked around for 15 runs in his past two starts.
But things aren't always as they seem, and Jon Niese provided that reminder as he delivered one of his strongest starts of his season. It helped the Mets escape Busch Stadium with a 5-2 victory, foiling the Cardinals' attempt to sweep a four-game series for the second time this month.
"Anytime you head into a big league game, it's hard enough to win on its own, but to take four of them in a row is extremely difficult," said manager Mike Matheny. "It's very hard. I don't think enough acknowledgement [is made] of that fact."
With a sellout crowd of 44,068 on hand, Niese quieted a Cardinals lineup that was without Matt Holliday and Jon Jay for the day. The Cardinals collected only six hits over 7 1/3 innings against Niese, who became the latest in a line of lefty starters to flummox the Cardinals.
The Cardinals have lost the past four games in which a left-hander has started against them. Those four starters combined to allow three earned runs in 28 innings. In the same span, St. Louis has gone 12-1 and scored 46 runs against right-handed starters.
The discrepancy is evident in the team batting average, as well. Through a quarter of the season, the Cardinals are batting 50 points higher against right-handers (.275) than they are against lefties (.225).
"I'm still not buying into it," said Allen Craig, who went hitless in three at-bats with a runner on base and twice thwarted rallies with double plays. "We feel like, over the course of the season, that will even out. We'll have some better performances."
On a club that has several established right-handed hitters, the early results are unexpected. With nearly the same group starting position players last year, the Cardinals hit .276 against lefties.
"There's really nothing that would make sense about it," Matheny said. "Our guys can hit lefties. We mixed it up today to get a couple different righties in there to see if we could jumpstart something, but that's where we are right now. I don't think it's going to last."
Despite a troubling start to his season, Niese found a way to extend his career success against the Cardinals. His 2.00 ERA in five starts against St. Louis remains his lowest against any opponent.
In contrast is Wainwright, who has now lost each of his past four starts against the Mets. Wainwright did not attribute that to any trend, but rather a handful of big innings that New York has pieced together off him during that stretch.
On Thursday, the Mets used a two-run third and two-run sixth to take a 4-1 lead.
"I felt like it was good, not great," Wainwright said of his command. "I definitely wasted today with not executing a couple pitches. But I had more than enough good stuff to get the job done."
Daniel Murphy and David Wright were in the middle of all of Wainwright's trouble. Each drove in a run in the third, and then doubled and scored in the sixth. Murphy tallied four hits in the game, giving him 10 for the series.
"I didn't know that we had success against [Wainwright]," Wright said. "He's got great stuff. It seems like the hits we were able to scratch out -- we had some bleeders that fell in, we had some good at-bats, and Murphy did a nice job setting the table for everyone else."
After throwing 120 pitches in his last start, Wainwright was pulled with a pitch count of 87. He defused any speculation of a carryover effect from his workload last start, noting that he was "surprised" the Cardinals did not let him pitch past the sixth.
"I could have easily pitched into the seventh or eighth inning," Wainwright said. "I made a couple of mistakes in the middle of the plate. I don't think it's time to start talking about fatigue or any of that. It's a little early."
The Cardinals' best chance to peck away at the deficit came in the eighth, just after the Mets extended their lead with a run off reliever Fernando Salas. Niese was chased from the game after allowing a one-out double to Matt Carpenter and then walking Shane Robinson.
With his third hit of the day, Carlos Beltran singled home Carpenter. Craig followed as the potential tying run, but ended the threat by grounding into his second double play of the afternoon. The Cardinals then went quietly in the ninth against closer Bobby Parnell.
"We had a good run," said Matheny, whose club lost for just the third time in its past 15 games. "We got them a little nervous there late. Guys continued to push."
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.