CINCINNATI -- His outing on the precipice of imploding, his first win in more than a year slipping away, Jaime Garcia got a strikeout and two key teammate assists in the sixth on Saturday night to help the Cardinals even their series against the Reds with a 6-3 win.
The victory, which pulled St. Louis back to within 1 1/2 games of first-place Milwaukee, hinged on that opportunity missed by the Reds. The Cardinals also needed every bit of second baseman Mark Ellis' vertical leap.
"It's not as good as it used to be," Ellis later joked. "But it's still not bad."
Garcia, pitching in front of a sellout crowd of 41,585 at Great American Ball Park, dominated the Reds early. He retired 12 in a row following an innocuous two-out hit in the first and, even after a fifth-inning hiccup, had a three-run lead in the sixth. His pitch count at 58, Garcia was putting the bullpen on notice for a night off.
That all quickly changed, however, as the Reds opened the sixth with three consecutive hits, the last of which was a Brandon Phillips double that nearly cleared the right-field wall. It wasn't a game-tying homer, but it did score one run and kept the Reds pressuring with two runners in scoring position.
In the end, neither would budge.
Ellis came through first, nabbing Devin Mesoraco's line drive to freeze both runners.
"The way I saw it, it looked like he had no chance when the ball left that bat," manager Mike Matheny said. "[I'm] still surprised. I want to see what it looks like on replay, but it looked like he jumped twice his height."
"Game changer," Garcia called it.
Garcia followed with a strikeout, his seventh of the night, of Jay Bruce.
"I'm trying not to let my emotions get to me, trying not to do too much," said Garcia, admitting that he tried just that on his elevated 1-2 pitch to Phillips. "I'm just trying to execute my pitch."
Matheny then chose to hand the inning over to Carlos Martinez, the assignment dictated by a need to get another inning out of that reliever, and Martinez's availability to do so. Though Martinez recently has been slow to find command early in appearances, he rose to the occasion this time.
He ended the threat by getting Ryan Ludwick to flail at a pitch outside the zone.
"I thought [Martinez] was much better today," Matheny said. "It was a different look right from the top today. I was proud of how he changed that."
Martinez followed with a scoreless seventh inning, once again stranding runners at second and third with consecutive strikeouts. He, too, got a defensive assist, this from Yadier Molina, who somehow managed to glove Todd Frazier's foul tip on a 100-mph fastball.
Molina called it "lucky." Skip Schumaker, standing on second, and Ellis together marveled at the skill.
"Nothing he does surprises me anymore," Ellis said. "That was huge."
Garcia was making his second start since wrapping up a near year-long recovery from a shoulder injury. His early-inning success was the result of pitching to quick contact and keeping the Reds off-balance with a four-pitch mix. Thirteen of the Reds' 23 at-bats against Garcia ended with three or fewer pitches.
Garcia threw first-pitch strikes to 15 batters and notched strikeouts on his sinker, slider and changeup.
"Every time you're facing a guy like Jaime, he throws strikes," Molina said. "I suppose the other team is going to be aggressive."
The Cardinals' offense was persistent in its support of Garcia, scoring in four different innings and showing improved success against Reds lefty Tony Cingrani. Cingrani had shut out St. Louis over seven innings the first week of the season, and he then held them to three runs in a start five days later. The Cardinals tagged him for four runs in six innings on Saturday.
A leadoff double by Matt Carpenter and one-out single from Matt Holliday put the Cardinals ahead, 1-0, in the first. Molina added to that advantage with a leadoff homer in the fourth.
The Cardinals were then beneficiaries of some late lineup shuffling that was necessitated when Peter Bourjos (stomach virus) was sent to the team hotel just before first pitch. That led Matheny to bump Ellis up a spot to bat seventh and earned Jon Jay a place in the eight-hole, playing center field.
Ellis' sacrifice fly and Jay's RBI single padded the lead in the sixth.
"I felt all right through the first five, and in the sixth, I got into some trouble and they capitalized, like they should," Cingrani said. "This game's definitely a game of inches; if [Mesoraco's] ball got over Ellis, it would've been a different game."
Two innings later, Jay delivered another run-scoring hit off a lefty, and Matt Adams came off the bench to drive home one more. The Cardinals had at least one runner aboard in all nine innings.
"That's what good teams do, just keep adding on, adding on," Ellis said. "That's something we weren't doing early in the year, but we're doing a lot better job lately. It's huge to get those add-on runs."
The insurance mattered when the Reds threatened in the ninth. A leadoff homer by Ludwick off Jason Motte narrowed the margin, and a two-out walk from Motte initiated Trevor Rosenthal's entrance. After an infield single by pinch-hitter Billy Hamilton, Rosenthal struck out Frazier, the potential tying run.
With the win, the Cardinals kept alive an opportunity to claim their fourth straight series win. For Garcia, the victory was an especially long time coming. It was his first since May 17, 2013.
"It's a 'W' for me, a 'W' for the team," Garcia said. "That's what is most important here. It's obviously exciting to go out there and feel healthy, and to go out there and try to compete."
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.