CINCINNATI -- From their first-inning scrum to the final out, the St. Louis Cardinals sent a message: Don't demean the defending champs. Not without expecting a fight.
Yadier Molina jawed with Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips in the first inning Tuesday night, sparking a benches-clearing fight, and the Cardinals followed their catcher's lead to an 8-4 victory that moved St. Louis back into first place in the NL Central.
When it was over, there were cuts and scrapes and a sense that the Cardinals had gotten the better of it all.
"I know our guys," manager Tony La Russa said. "This is not the first time that we've been challenged. You just go up and down our roster -- we've got a bunch of guys that are very tough characters. Like I say, there's times that you beat us, we're not good enough. but you're never going to scare us and we're never going to back down."
The fight brought out their best.
St. Louis has won the first two games of the showdown series between teams locked in a tight race since May. The Cardinals moved a season-high 14 games over .500 and a few percentage points ahead of the Reds, who had led the division for the last eight days.
The defending champions improved to 9-5 against the Reds this season, the only team in the NL Central that has beaten them so thoroughly.
"They're in first place, but we showed we've got good talent and we're going to compete," Molina said. "We did today. We battled."
By contrast, the Reds responded to the dustup with one of their worst games, committing three errors and managing only six singles.
"I don't think it's a big mystery that there was some tension before the game," third baseman Scott Rolen said. "I was tired before my first at-bat. I won't get into specifics about it. It was two teams defending their own people. It got ugly."
It all started with Phillips.
The second baseman opened the series by saying he hates the Cardinals and calling them complainers. Reds manager Dusty Baker wished he hadn't said it, and had a talk with Phillips before the game on Tuesday.
Then, Phillips caught grief from the Cardinals.
He dug in to lead off the bottom of the first and tapped his bat on Molina's shin guard in a friendly gesture. Molina was taken aback.
"The comment he made yesterday that he's got no friends over here -- then why you touch me?" Molina said. "You are not my friend, so don't touch me. I mean, if we're no good for you, you are not my friend."
The exchange turned angry. Phillips took off his helmet, Molina removed his mask. Both benches and bullpens emptied.
La Russa and Baker talked animatedly in the middle of the crowd. Rolen -- a former Cardinal -- went after St. Louis pitcher Chris Carpenter, who beat the Reds 7-3 in the series opener on Monday night, trying to be a peacemaker. That, too, escalated.
Carpenter ended up pinned against the backstop screen. Cueto also ended up against the screen, furiously kicking away St. Louis players. Catcher Jason LaRue got kicked in the head -- La Russa said he had a slight concussion -- and Carpenter had several long, raw scrapes across his lower back and his right side.
"I turn around and I've got Cueto kicking me in the back with his spikes," Carpenter said. "It's super unprofessional. I don't know where he learned how to fight."
Cueto said he was trying to protect himself.
"I was trying to break it up," Cueto said, with catcher Ramon Hernandez translating. "The next thing I know, 15-20 people were around me. I was up against the net. When 15 people are around you, you get scared. I had my back to the wall with my feet up."
The altercation lasted seven minutes. Play resumed and Phillips grounded out.
Molina hit a solo homer off Cueto (11-3) in the second inning and later added a sacrifice fly. Matt Holliday broke the game open with a bases-loaded single in the seventh, one of his four hits.
Rookie left-hander Jaime Garcia (10-5) beat the Reds for the third time this season, giving up four runs in 5 1/3 innings. Ryan Franklin retired Phillips, the only batter he faced, on a routine grounder with two runners aboard, ending the game for his 20th save in 22 tries.
"We didn't get key hits when we needed them," said Phillips, who is 1 for 10 in the series. "It's all about wins. We're in a race."
The last St. Louis rookie to win 10 games was Jason Simontacchi in 2002. ... St. Louis 2B Skip Schumaker left the game with leg cramps. It was 95 degrees at game time. ... La Russa said RHP Jeff Suppan had discomfort in his groin during a between-starts workout on Monday and is being examined. ... The Reds started using RHP Homer Bailey out of the bullpen during his minor league rehab stint. Bailey has been on the DL since May 24 with inflammation in his pitching shoulder. ... Holliday's bases-loaded single ended Ondrusek's streak of scoreless innings at 22.