David Ginsburg, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Going up against the 2016 NL Cy Young winner and facing the prospect of stumbling to their worst start in 20 years, the St. Louis Cardinals played their best game of the young season.

Mike Leake outpitched Max Scherzer, Stephen Piscotty homered and had five RBIs, and the Cardinals beat the Washington Nationals 6-1 on Wednesday to avoid a three-game sweep.

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After yielding 22 runs in the first two games of the series, St. Louis dodged its first 2-7 start since 1997.

“Leake did a tremendous job on the mound and we played good defense,” Piscotty said. “It was a good win, and we needed it.”

Leake (1-1) gave up four hits, struck out seven and walked none over seven shutout innings. The right-hander allowed hits to the first two batters, then picked off a runner before getting 19 straight outs. The streak ended when Daniel Murphy singled with two outs in the seventh.

By that time, St. Louis had taken a 3-0 lead against Scherzer, who yielded only one earned run. He did, however, throw three wild pitches — two in the third inning — after tossing only two all last year while going 20-7.

Scherzer (1-1) allowed three runs, four hits and two walks in six innings. He struck out 10, the 50th time in his career he reached double figures in strikeouts.

“At the end of the day, even when you get punched in the face, you still do some things well,” Scherzer said. “I was able to get a lot of swings and misses and was able to get my cut slider into lefties really well.

“Other times, I pitched ineffectively. This doesn’t feel great, but I’m in a situation where I’m ready to go forward with my next start and pitch well.”

With Leake leading the way, the Cardinals rebounded from a three-game skid in which they were outscored 30-9.

“It’s ideal,” Leake said of his performance. “It’s what you ask for from a starting pitcher after you’ve been beat down for a couple games.”

Leake permitted only two runners past first base and reduced his ERA to 0.60.

“What a great day — seven shutout innings against this team,” manager Mike Matheny said.

After Leake was pulled, Adam Eaton hit an RBI single in the eighth inning and Washington put runners at the corners with two outs before Brett Cecil got Bryce Harper to line out to third.

Piscotty’s drive in the ninth ended any remaining suspense. He also had run-scoring singles in the first and fifth innings in tying his career high for RBIs.

St. Louis used a walk and a double by Piscotty to go up 1-0 in the first inning.

In the bottom half, Eaton doubled and took third on a single by Anthony Rendon. Not long after that, a replay requested by the Cardinals revealed that Leake picked off Rendon.

“That’s a game changer,” Matheny said.

Nationals manager Dusty Baker agreed, noting, “We had him on the ropes and then the pickoff.”

Leake subsequently struck out Harper and retired Murphy on a comebacker.

St. Louis took advantage of an error by shortstop Wilmer Difo to score two unearned runs in the fifth.

PERALTA STRUGGLES

Matheny is exercising patience while waiting for three-time All-Star Jhonny Peralta to break a hitting slump.

Peralta is 3 for 20 with eight strikeouts and no walks.

“He’s run against good guys making good pitches,” said Matheny, who sat Peralta on Wednesday. “We have to let him run the course.”

TRAINER’S ROOM

Cardinals: 1B Matt Carpenter returned to the starting lineup after back tightness limited him to a pinch-hitting role on Tuesday.

Nationals: Placed INF Stephen Drew on the 10-day DL with a strained right hamstring. The injury occurred Tuesday night. He’s been replaced on the roster by INF Grant Green.

UP NEXT

Cardinals: The team intended to travel by train to New York on Wednesday night, take Thursday off and start a three-game series at Yankee Stadium on Friday night.

Nationals: Following an off day Thursday, Washington opens a three-game series against the visiting Philadelphia Phillies on Friday.

___

More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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