CINCINNATI -- Only 26 games into the season, the St. Louis Cardinals have reached their first goal. They're 10 games over the break-even mark and looking good.
Scott Rolen returned from a sore back and hit a two-run homer Wednesday night, sparking the Cardinals to a 7-3 victory and three-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds.
Mark Mulder's seven shutout innings helped St. Louis improve the NL's best record to 18-8, the Cardinals' best start since 1948. Getting 10 games over .500 was the first of manager Tony La Russa's many goals for the defending NL champions.
It didn't take them long.
"It's a step," La Russa said. "If that's the only step we take this year, it will have been a disappointing season. But that's how you get there, step by step."
St. Louis got swept by Boston in the World Series last season, but retooled its lineup and replenished a pitching staff that's been one of the majors' best so far. Mulder (4-1), acquired from Oakland in December, kept it going against a struggling lineup.
The left-hander allowed only three singles -- two of them infield hits -- over seven innings. He retired his last 13 batters and didn't allow a runner past first base.
Carmen Cali gave up a two-run homer to Felipe Lopez and a solo shot by Adam Dunn in the ninth, when the Reds got a runner to second base for the first time in the game.
The series between division rivals started with plenty of drama: St. Louis pulling off the biggest ninth-inning comeback in its history, scoring seven runs to win 10-9 on Monday night.
"In the first game to have that comeback really helped us the last two days," Mulder said. "We had a lot of energy. We're not making any big mistakes."
By contrast, the Reds were listless as they lost their seventh in a row.
Cincinnati added $17 million to its payroll in the offseason, hoping to close the gap with the Cardinals. Instead, it's as wide as ever. The Reds fell 8½ games behind the NL Central leaders, who have won 18 of 24 meetings over the past two seasons.
"We came into this year with a lot more expectations than last year," said Ryan Freel, who had one of the infield singles off Mulder. "Our goals were higher, and it's a bad feeling right now. With the way we're playing, it's a frustrating time. We've got to put something together and upset somebody, and we've got to do it soon."
Brandon Claussen (1-3) gave the Reds little chance to snap their longest losing streak since last July, when they dropped eight in a row. Claussen gave up seven runs and 10 hits in only 3 1/3 innings.
Rolen, who missed the first two games of the series with a sore back, wasn't in La Russa's original lineup, but felt much better in batting practice. He hit a two-run homer into the upper deck in left field in his second at-bat, jump-starting the offense.
"I didn't touch a bat the last two days," Rolen said. "I walked in today and thought today was as good a day as any. I didn't know what was going to happen. I think that helped me. It calmed me down a little bit. I wasn't going to swing at bad pitches because I might hurt myself."
Albert Pujols had a pair of singles, extending his hitting streak to 15 games.
Claussen also had problems with the Cardinals' modest hitters. Catcher Yadier Molina, a .173 hitter who was only 2-for-25 with runners in scoring position, had a pair of run-scoring singles off the left-hander.
So Taguchi's two-run single completed a four-run rally in the fourth and ended Claussen's outing after only 67 pitches.
The 7-0 deficit drew boos from the crowd of 17,241 and deflated the Reds, who didn't get a runner aboard against Mulder after the third inning. Fans booed loudly when closer Danny Graves came on to pitch the ninth.
Graves gave up homers to Jim Edmonds and John Mabry during the Cardinals' ninth-inning comeback on Monday, then criticized fans for booing the home team. He had no reaction when fans gave him a sarcastic ovation Wednesday for retiring the side in order.
Pujols has hit safely in 67 of his 76 career games against the Reds. ... Edmonds got a day off. He has started 22 games. ... OF Larry Walker sat out with a sore groin, but it expected back over the weekend. ... Reds 1B Sean Casey was 0-for-4, ending his hitting streak at 12 games. ... CF Ken Griffey Jr. got a day off. Griffey has hit safely in his last nine games.