ST. LOUIS -- While positioning Jason Heyward at the top of their lineup over the past three weeks, the Braves proved to be the offensive juggernaut they had expected to be. But while spending the past two days without Heyward, they have gained reason to be concerned about what the next month could bring.
With or without Heyward, the Braves might have succumbed to the dominance Adam Wainwright displayed on the way to notching his Major League-best fifth complete game in the 3-1 victory the Cardinals claimed Friday night with the help of Matt Holliday's decisive sixth-inning home run off Kris Medlen.
"It was a tough night," Medlen said. "I felt like I was cruising pretty good. Once again, it comes down to one or two pitches. Holliday is too good of a hitter to leave a pitch over the plate like that, especially in a tie game."
Holliday's two-out solo home run gave Wainwright a lead that he would preserve during his 128-pitch gem. To add to the splendor of his evening, the Braves' former first-round Draft selection gave himself some cushion with a bases-loaded sacrifice fly against Scott Downs in the seventh inning.
"I felt very good tonight," said Wainwright, who is 7-2 with a 2.98 in nine career starts against the Braves. "I felt strong. Even into the ninth there with a lot of pitches, I still felt very strong."
Wainwright took advantage of a weakened Atlanta lineup that has totaled three runs in the two games played since Heyward suffered a fractured jaw that will likely sideline him for at least a month. The Braves had averaged five runs while winning 20 of their previous 24 games, a streak that began with a three-game sweep of the Cardinals in Atlanta.
With losses in the first two games of this four-game set, the Braves are in the midst of their first two-game losing streak since July 21. While the Braves still own a 13-game lead in the National League East, the club will have to turn things around soon to hold off several teams, including the Dodgers, Pirates and Cardinals, in the battle to notch the NL's best record and gain postseason home-field advantage leading up to the World Series.
"It's going to take more than two games. Jason was a huge loss," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "He's not a replaceable player. What he does in the outfield and what he's been doing -- he's pretty much carried us the last three weeks. It's a tough break. But we're going to have to tread water without him and hopefully come back tomorrow and put some runs up on the board."
While Atlanta's offense was frustrated by Wainwright, Medlen was upset with manager Fredi Gonzalez's decision to remove him after he allowed a Yadier Molina double and Jon Jay single to put runners at the corners and no outs with the Cardinals leading 2-1 in the seventh inning. His objection came unsolicited as he spoke to reporters after allowing three runs and six hits in six-plus innings.
"I got taken out with 78 pitches," Medlen said. "I was just starting to have to battle. I didn't have to battle yet. But I wasn't given the opportunity. I guess I'm voicing the fact that I didn't appreciate that. I don't know what kind of mentality we're trying to create for our starters. But I feel like I should be able to work out of some jams."
Having seen Medlen make promising strides over the past few weeks, Gonzalez gave his right-hander a chance to work around Molina's double. But after Jay followed with a single, he called upon left-handed reliever Scott Downs, who struck out David Freese and walked Daniel Descalso before surrendering Wainwright's sacrifice fly.
"The manager is there to make decisions, and I felt he made it when he came out to the mound," Medlen said. "I don't argue anything. But you'd like to battle out of that and try to get a win."
Molina and Jay gave Wainwright an early one-run lead when they opened the bottom of the second with consecutive doubles. Medlen proceeded to retire the next 14 batters he faced before being doomed by the changeup Holliday hit into the left-field seats.
Before Medlen surrendered Holiday's homer, the Braves experienced an eventful top half of the sixth inning. Justin Upton, who has homered eight times through this month's first 17 games, was ejected after screaming an expletive as he exited the batter's box on a groundout. Home-plate umpire Paul Nauert felt the curse word was issued toward him in response to the disputed strike he had called one pitch earlier.
"It wasn't a good time to eject a player, especially a player of that caliber for really nothing that was extravagant," Gonzalez said.
Medlen, who had singled to begin the sixth, advanced to third base on Upton's groundout and scored when Freeman delivered a two-out single to right field. Chris Johnson followed with a single. But Wainwright left runners stranded at the corners when Matt Carpenter ranged into shallow left field to make an over-the-shoulder catch of Brian McCann's pop fly.
"They're a great club, and especially with the way we played against them last time, you know, we kind of had a chip on our shoulder this go-around," Carpenter said. "It was a big win today."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.