By JEFF BARTL
(AP) -- Starting pitching has been the biggest reason why the St. Louis Cardinals are off to a solid start, allowing them to overcome an inconsistent offense.
Having avoided a third straight loss in their last game, St. Louis opens a three-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night at Busch Stadium.
The Cardinals (12-7) won their first six series for the first time in team history, but they struggled to score in losing two of three to Chicago in their last set.
St. Louis dropped the first two in walkoff fashion, falling 3-2 on Monday and losing by that same score in 10 innings Tuesday. David Freese homered and drove in three runs as the Cardinals salvaged the series finale with a 5-1 win Wednesday.
The Cardinals begin a six-game homestand Friday after playing 13 of their first 19 on the road.
"You lose two emotional games like we did, you never want to get swept, (and) to get that third one heading back home is nice," Freese said. "We came out of the gate so hot, this game will even you out real quick."
St. Louis has managed three or fewer runs four times - all defeats - in its last seven games after its 9-3 start. The Cardinals have also played four contests in 2012 in which they've scored at least nine runs.
"We'd still like to put it on the opponent a little harder, a little more," Freese said. "Our pitchers are doing a phenomenal job. We just have to keep scrapping."
The starting rotation is 11-4 with a 2.48 ERA, ranking near the top of the major leagues in wins and ERA. Starters have allowed one or no earned runs nine times, but Jake Westbrook (2-1, 1.31 ERA) didn't receive any run support his last time out.
The right-hander allowed two runs over 6 2-3 innings of a 2-0 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday. Westbrook has gone 1-3 with a 3.08 ERA in six career starts versus Milwaukee, but in the five outings with the Cardinals he's received more than three runs of support once.
St. Louis, though, may have a very good chance to provide Westbrook with an early lead Friday given Milwaukee's recent trend.
The Brewers (9-10) have allowed opponents to score first 14 times, including in each of their last eight games. That was the case again Wednesday in a 7-5 loss to Houston that prevented a three-game series sweep.
Ryan Braun hit a two-run homer and is 7 for 20 (.350) with three homers and six RBIs over his last five games.
Braun went 4 for 12 with a home run and two doubles as the Brewers dropped two of three to the Cardinals from April 6-8. He's looking forward to returning to St. Louis for the first time since Milwaukee dropped Game 5 of the 2011 NL championship series, which it lost in six games.
"It's always a good atmosphere," he told the team's official website. ... "It will be fun."
Braun is 7 for 13 (.538) with a homer off Westbrook, who will be opposed by Marco Estrada (0-0, 2.45 ERA).
The right-hander allowed one run and two hits in five innings of a 9-4 win over Colorado on Saturday. It was his first start after making five relief appearances.
"We like Marco. We like him in (the rotation)," manager Ron Roenicke said. "He's got better stuff than people think he does."
Updated April 26, 2012