ST. LOUIS -- Manny Parra would be happy to strike out in the first inning every time.

The Milwaukee left-hander stepped to the plate before he stepped on the mound on Sunday, when the Brewers batted around and scored four first-inning runs on the way to an 8-2 win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium that strengthened their hold of first place in the National League Central.

"When you get to come up and get an at-bat in the first inning, that's a good sign," Parra said.

Prince Fielder, who struck out in the first inning before J.J. Hardy and Jason Kendall each hit two-out, two-run singles, belted a three-run home run in the seventh for some insurance, and Craig Counsell and Ryan Braun scored two runs apiece. The Brewers have won five games in a row and will aim for a three-game sweep of St. Louis on Monday night in the makeup of Friday's rainout.

Since April 21, Milwaukee has climbed from the division cellar to the penthouse by winning 19 of 24 games. Sunday's win pushed the Brewers 1 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Cubs, who lost to the Astros, and two games ahead of the Cardinals.

"We're getting good pitching and great hitting," Parra said. "Everything seems to be going together right now."

Kendall finished with two hits, leaving him one shy of 2,000 in his career, and Counsell went 2-for-3 with two walks, two runs scored and an RBI to back Parra (3-4). The 26-year-old won his third consecutive start by holding St. Louis to two runs on five hits in six innings.

"No. 1 is starting pitching, and it's just been solid," Counsell said of the Brewers' month-long surge. "Every day, it's solid. That does so many things for the team. It keeps your bullpen fresh and it keeps [hitters] in the game, so you're not down like [the Cardinals] were today."

Cardinals starter Todd Wellemeyer (3-4) endured a wild outing. He walked seven batters, including three in the first inning, and hit two batters with pitches. But he didn't allow a Brewers hit after the first and made it into the sixth inning before St. Louis tapped its bullpen.

"His ball was probably moving a lot. It seemed like he didn't have a really good feel of where it was going," Counsell said.

The first inning did Wellemeyer in. He opened the game by striking out Rickie Weeks, who left the game with a sore left wrist and will miss Monday's game to see a specialist in Phoenix. Counsell walked and Ryan Braun hit a ground-rule double before Fielder's strikeout, but Mike Cameron worked another walk to load the bases for Hardy.

Hardy delivered a two-run single to right-center field. Two batters later, after Corey Hart drew Milwaukee's third walk of the inning, Kendall hit a ball more softly in the same direction for two more runs.

"It's a momentum thing," Hardy said of the Brewers' two-out rally. "It stinks for the other team. I know it stinks when it happens to us."

Parra nearly got into two-out trouble of his own in each of the first two innings. In the bottom of the first, he walked Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina but retired left fielder Nick Stavinoha on an inning-ending flyout. In the second, Parra surrendered two-out singles to No. 8 hitter Brian Barden and Wellemeyer but retired Brendan Ryan on another fly out to center.

Beginning with Ryan's out, Parra retired 10 of 11 hitters. The only hit was Ryan's infield single in the fifth inning.

"I felt like for [innings] two through five, I threw the ball really well," Parra said. "In the sixth inning, I labored there a little bit."

Pujols led off with a double and Molina walked before Stavinoha pulled an RBI single to left field that pushed Molina to third base. Colby Rasmus' RBI grounder cut the Brewers' lead to 4-2.

The problem in the inning, Parra said, was mechanical. He was "flying open" with his front shoulder, but corrected the problem against pinch-hitter Joe Thurston, who batted with runners at first and second with two outs. Aided by the lefty-on-lefty matchup, Parra got Thurston to pop out foul of third base.

"The biggest out of the game was two outs in the sixth inning with Thurston up there, because [Parra] struggled through that inning," Brewers manager Ken Macha. "You like to see the development of a pitcher."

Fielder hit his home in the next half-inning off reliever Blaine Boyer to break the game open. It provided some breathing room for Macha, who determined before the game that he wouldn't use Trevor Hoffman for a save situation because Hoffman had pitched four times in the previous five days.

"I had him 1-2 and I just left the ball right over the middle," Boyer said. "I was really trying to get him to chase away. I went back and watched it, and it was right over the middle. Right over the heart of the plate. I did him a favor. That was that."

"I feel like that was huge," Parra said. "If we weren't able to put up any runs and get them back on the ropes, the momentum could have swung. Prince hitting that home run right there put them in a hole."

Parra has some personal momentum. After losing his first four starts with a 6.52 ERA, he is 3-0 in four starts since with a 2.25 ERA.

"I feel like it's getting better," Parra said. "It's constantly working on the same thing. And I figured something out on Thurston, that last hitter, that hopefully I'll take into my next start. Those last two pitches I really focused on keeping my front shoulder in, and the ball came out more crisp."