ATLANTA -- Manager Mike Matheny did not deliver a lengthy speech, but he did gather his players together before the start of the second half to make one particular point of emphasis. It would be critical, he told them, for the team not to buy into this idea that an opponents' record or standing in the division should dictate the importance of a series.
This reminder that all games are counted equally was conveyed with the intention of sapping any extra significance from the 11-game road trip that the Cardinals kicked off on Friday. But while it may remain unspoken in the Cardinals' clubhouse, there is no skirting the reality that the Cardinals will be sizing themselves up against three other playoff-positioned clubs over the next 10 days.
A string of road games against contenders opened in Atlanta, where Mike Minor outdueled ace Adam Wainwright to lead the National League East-leading Braves to a 4-1 win over St. Louis. With the second-largest Turner Field crowd this season (50,124), the Braves halted the Cardinals' four-game winning streak.
"[On] a big stage, facing probably one of the best teams in Major League Baseball, [Minor] did a [heck] of a job for us," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "They catch the ball, they pitch, they hit, they score runs. They do a lot of good stuff, and he beat a [heck] of a team today."
In their 100th game of the season, the Cardinals returned to -- at least on paper -- tougher competition. The Braves were the first NL opponent with a winning record that St. Louis had faced since June 9. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati await next on this three-city road swing.
"This is a tough trip," Wainwright said. "This is one of those trips that you could come away and open up a sizable lead on people, or you could play .500 ball and absolutely nothing happens, or you could tank. We've got some tough opponents ahead, but we feel good about our team."
Wainwright, a Georgia native and former Braves draftee, was previously undefeated at Turner Field. With 43 friends and family on his ticket pass list and dozens more having driven up from near his hometown of Brunswick, Wainwright found the Braves' patient approach to give him fits.
He narrowly missed with several of his offspeed pitches early, which routinely put Atlanta in favorable counts and upped his pitch count quickly. As Wainwright worked through fine-tuning his command, he was stung by a string of second-inning singles.
Three consecutive one-out singles erased the 1-0 lead provided by Yadier Molina's solo homer in the top half of the frame. Minor then pushed the Braves in front when he laced an RBI single to left on a slider that Wainwright left up.
"Usually when you've got the pitcher up there, if you throw a first-pitch slider, he's not hacking," Wainwright said. "And if he is, it's an out usually. But he made a good swing on it."
Jason Heyward's solo homer on a hanging changeup in the fifth padded the lead for the Braves, who added another insurance run with the aid of Pete Kozma's three-base throwing error in the seventh. Kozma's low throw to Matt Carpenter as he attempted to start a double play skidded past Carpenter and into right field, allowing Chris Johnson to score from first.
Wainwright (13-6) finished the inning but needed 119 pitches to extend himself that far.
"They hit some tough pitches and worked some tough at-bats," Wainwright said. "Sometimes you get beat. I had pretty good stuff tonight. My fastball was good. It's the best my changeup has been in a while. I threw some good breaking balls. You just have to tip your hat sometimes."
The Cardinals' offense did little to back Wainwright. Held homerless since the All-Star break, the Cardinals did break that string with Molina's second-inning blast. Molina -- who last homered on July 14 -- has the Cardinals' only two long balls since July 10.
The Cardinals had few other run-scoring chances against Minor and were unable to come through in four opportunities with a runner in scoring position. Kozma doubled and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt in the third, but was left stranded there when Matt Carpenter's fly ball was too shallow and Shane Robinson grounded out.
"Typically our guys have done a real good job of getting that runner in," Matheny said. "Once again, credit to making pitches in those situations, too."
Carpenter's one-out double in the sixth went for naught when Robinson and Carlos Beltran followed with groundouts to the shortstop. The Cardinals had entered the game batting a Major League-best .340 with runners in scoring position.
Minor had a lot to do with the Cardinals' lack of success in those spots on Friday. Teasing the Cardinals with a cutter that he did not showcase against them when he faced St. Louis last season, Minor struck out nine and scattered only four hits.
"We knew they had a good approach to the opposite field, and I had Jason [Heyward] make some good plays over there for me [in the outfield]," Minor said. "We've seen the numbers. It seems like they can hit everything, so we had our own game plan watching film, and me and [catcher Brian McCann] just worked together."
After a concentrated bunch of games against clubs with losing records, the Cardinals are now underway in a different sort of stretch. Their next 14 games come against teams that, if the season were to end now, would be playing in the postseason. And 10 of those come away from home.
"This is a team that is first in their division," Carlos Beltran said. "Apparently, they're going to be there at the end of the day. It will be a good series for us to come here and battle. There's no doubt that it's a tough road trip, but we're confident in the team that we have."
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.