Pirates stumble in pressure spots, drop series opener to Cardinals


Aug 13, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Daniel Descalso (33) scores the game tying run on a single by first baseman Allen Craig (not pictured) as Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin (55) looks on during the ninth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

With a few exceptions, the Pittsburgh Pirates have never been in a pennant race before, let alone the playoffs. They didn’t react well to postseason-type pressure Tuesday night in St. Louis, and the Cardinals took advantage with an unlikely comeback win.

Starling Marte’s dropped fly ball in the ninth inning led to Allen Craig’s game-tying single, then little-used outfielder Adron Chambers knocked in Jon Jay with the winning run in the bottom of the 14th, giving the Cardinals a 4-3 victory at Busch Stadium. St. Louis (68-50) is now two games behind Pittsburgh (70-48) for first place in the National League Central with two games left in this midweek series.

Both teams blew multiple opportunities to break the tie – the Pirates and Cardinals combined to go 5 for 26 with runners in scoring position – but the home team finally broke through against Pittsburgh reliever Jared Hughes. Jay reached on a one-out smash that deflected off shortstop Clint Barmes and into center field, then recorded just his fourth stolen base of the season with Chambers at the plate.

Chambers slapped a Hughes offering into left, where Marte gunned to the plate in time to get Jay, but catcher Russell Martin couldn’t get the tag down. The Pirates’ fourth straight loss took 4 hours and 55 minutes to complete, an especially heartrending result considering they led 3-0 after two innings but were shut out by six Cardinals pitchers the rest of the way.

Andrew McCutchen (two-run) and Jordy Mercer (solo) drilled home runs in the early going against St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright, and the Pirates took a tenuous 3-2 advantage into the ninth, where top reliever Mark Melancon quickly got the first out before Marte inexplicably dropped a routine fly ball from Daniel Descalsco.

Melancon shook off the error to strike out Matt Carpenter swinging before walking Carlos Beltran on four pitches. That brought up Craig, the best hitter in MLB with runners in scoring position, and he delivered once again with a liner to right on a pitch down and away. Descalso scored on the hit, although Beltran was thrown out after Josh Harrison’s throw to the plate was cut off.

Gaby Sanchez started the top of the 10th with a single and was bunted to second, but the Pirates couldn’t nudge him home. It was the Cardinals’ turn to waste an even bigger chance in the bottom half, when a walk and a throwing error by Sanchez led to runners at second and third with one out. Vin Mazzaro played Houdini from that point, whiffing Pete Kozma and inducing Descalso to pop to center.

Aug 13, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) celebrates after hitting a two run home run off of St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright (not pictured) during the first inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

St. Louis misfired again in the 11th when a first-and-third, one-out situation led the Pirates to employ a five-man infield. The strategy paid off when pitcher Seth Maness, forced to hit because there were no players left on the Cardinals bench, grounded into a double play. The inning-ending twin killing went from shortstop Barmes to right fielder Harrison, who was positioned almost directly over second base, to first baseman Sanchez.

As if to return the favor, the Pirates had the go-ahead run at third with no outs after back-to-back singles from McCutchen and Alvarez to start the 13th. Kozma made a nice diving play on Martin’s sharp grounder to get the first out, then Harrison hit into a third-to-first double play to keep it 3-3.

The Bucs created their own bases-loaded situation in the bottom of the 13th following Matt Carpenter’s two-out double against Jeanmar Gomez, throwing his third inning. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle ordered consecutive intentional walks to Beltran and Craig to get to Maness, who struck out looking to validate the unusual strategy.

Wainwright entered the game with a 5.19 ERA against the Pirates, nearly two runs higher than his career average. The Bucs jumped on him early with home runs by McCutchen and Mercer in the first two innings, matching the season total against Wainwright at Busch Stadium this year.

The Cardinals’ Cy Young hopeful bounced back effectively after that, getting through seven innings on 122 pitches. Wainwright racked up 80 pitches through four innings before sharpening to allow three runs on five hits while fanning six.

Pittsburgh’s Charlie Morton tossed five scoreless innings to begin his start before St. Louis plated two in the sixth to cut the Pirates’ lead to 3-2. The Cardinals loaded the bases with three straight singles, then got on the board on David Freese’s double-play grounder to short and Jon Jay’s two-out single to left.

The Pirates missed on two prime chances to get insurance runs, twice stranding a baserunner after he got to second base with no outs. In the fifth, Marte was hit by a Wainwright curveball and stole his 34th base immediately after. Neil Walker moved Marte to third with a groundout, but McCutchen struck out and Pedro Alvarez bounced to first.

McCutchen and Alvarez, the third and fourth batters in the Pirates’ lineup, came up short in succession once again in the eighth, when Walker led off with a double against reliever Trevor Rosenthal. The hard-throwing Rosenthal then fanned Cutch and Pedro, followed by Martin to keep Walker stapled to the second base bag.

That failure to plate a fourth run nearly cost the Pirates in the bottom of the eighth, as righty Bryan Morris ran into trouble against the potent Cardinals offense. Matt Holliday and Jay hit singles to put the tying run at third base with two outs, setting up Slippery Rock, Pa., native Matt Adams in a critical pinch-hit appearance. But Pittsburgh’s proclivity to shift defenders dramatically paid off when Adams’ liner settled into the glove of Walker in shallow right field.


Cardinals rookie Shelby Miller will oppose the Pirates’ Francisco Liriano in Wednesday night’s Game 2.