Much of the St. Louis Cardinals’ success this year can be attributed to big hits with runners in scoring position. That fact was duly noted entering the National League Division Series, but the Pittsburgh Pirates have stolen their act so far.
Powered by RBI hits from Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin in the eighth inning, the Pirates shrugged off more postseason pyrotechnics from Carlos Beltran to beat the Cardinals 5-3 in Game 3 on Sunday at PNC Park, taking a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series.
In front of the largest crowd in ballpark history, the Pirates carried a 3-2 lead into the eighth inning before Beltran slammed a long solo homer off Mark Melancon to rally the Cardinals back for the second time in the game. Beltran, who passed Babe Ruth for eighth on the all-time MLB playoff home run list, also bounced a two-run single in the fifth to tie the score at 2.
But despite another hiccup from Melancon – he has four blown saves in the last three weeks – the Pirates rebounded to construct the deciding rally against two Cardinals relievers. Presumed NL MVP Andrew McCutchen started the bottom of the eighth in nearly-ideal fashion with a line-drive double to left; however, he was cut down trying for third base on Justin Morneau’s groundout to shortstop.
Instead of sagging after McCutchen’s blunder, the Bucs continued to surge. Marlon Byrd drew a walk from St. Louis righty Carlos Martinez, which inspired Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to call for left-hander Kevin Siegrist to face Alvarez with two on and one out. Alvarez, who hit under .200 against southpaws this season, rapped a 2-1 pitch through the right side to score pinch-runner Josh Harrison easily from second base and ignite the congregation of 40,000-plus.
The cheering grew even louder when Martin drilled a high fastball into left field to plate Byrd and give the fiery Jason Grilli a two-run cushion for the top of the ninth. Pittsburgh native Matt Adams lifted a leadoff single to start the frame, but Grilli retired Jon Jay, Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso in order to put the Pirates one win away from their first NLCS since 1992.
St. Louis hit over .330 with runners in scoring position this season, but Pittsburgh is now 6 for 18 (.333) in such situations in the series while the Cardinals have gone 3 for 20 (.150), illustrating the fickleness of such “clutch” metrics.
Pittsburgh appeared to be in line for an easier victory early Sunday afternoon, like their 7-1 triumph in Game 2. Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano disposed of the first six St. Louis hitters in order, calling back to his masterful performance in Tuesday’s wild-card win over Cincinnati.
Meanwhile, a McCutchen walk, a Morneau infield single and a throwing error from Kozma put runners at second and third for Byrd in the bottom of the first. Against Cardinals rookie righty Joe Kelly, Byrd smoked a shot through the left side, staking the Pirates to a 2-0 advantage.
Kelly settled in from there, riding a firm fastball and a sharp breaking pitch to keep the Pirates under control until the sixth. His counterpart Liriano gradually became more ragged, running up a high pitch count when the Cardinals repeatedly watched sliders break below the strike zone.
Liriano avoided trouble until the fifth, when Jay (single) and Kozma (walked) reached to start the inning. Kelly fouled out bunting and Matt Carpenter struck out, but a double steal pushed two runners in scoring position for Beltran, who grounded the tying hit up the middle.
Keyed by a Byrd double, the Pirates dinged Kelly for a run in the sixth. After an intentional walk to Alvarez loaded the bases, Martin sent a deep sacrifice fly to center to greet reliever Seth Maness. McCutchen, who drew a base on balls to start the inning, scored easily on the play.
At the Nos. 5-6-7 spots in the lineup, Byrd (three hits, four RBI), Alvarez (five hits, four RBI) and Martin (two hits, four RBI) have been the true cleanup hitters for Pittsburgh in the series. McCutchen has certainly done his job to set up that dynamic trio, reaching base eight times in 13 at-bats against St. Louis.
The Pirates will send Charlie Morton to the mound Monday afternoon to try to clinch the series; the groundball specialist will be opposed by Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha. First pitch is set for 3:07 p.m. and the game will be televised nationally on TBS.