ST. LOUIS — Heading into this series between the Pirates and the Cardinals, I wrote that the Pirates had to sweep the Cardinals to keep their division hopes alive. A sweep would have put them 3.5 games out in the NL Central, with three more games remaining against St. Louis. Anything less puts them at least 5.5 out, which would require the red-hot Cardinals to lose a few games to other teams in order to climb back in the race.
Today’s game was the biggest challenge the Pirates faced. They had Charlie Morton on the mound, who had been one of their better pitchers for the last month, but also struggled against the Cardinals in recent years. The Pirates ended up losing 4-1 tonight, meaning they have now lost the last ten games that Morton has started in St. Louis.
“Everybody knows the circumstance,” Morton said of this series against St. Louis. “It’s frustrating to keep coming here. I don’t think I’ve beat them here since 2011.”
While that’s true, the last few starts by Morton against St. Louis haven’t been bad. In 2014 he combined for one earned run in 13 innings over two starts, including seven shutout innings of one hit ball at Busch Stadium on July 7th, a game in which the Pirates lost 2-0. Tonight was a similar story. He ended up with six innings, giving up two runs, one earned, on four hits, with three walks and three strikeouts. And the runs came on a crazy play.
Morton ran into some trouble in the second inning when he walked Kolten Wong and hit Jon Jay with a pitch with one out. A sacrifice bunt by Jaime Garcia put runners at second and third with two outs. He then decided to pitch around Matt Carpenter to load the bases for Stephen Piscotty.
“Carp’s seen me a lot, and he’s a great hitter,” Morton said. “Not saying Piscotty is not, but I do better against righties. So we pitched around Carp.”
Morton was able to get a ground ball to a shifted infielder on Piscotty. However, the ball had some crazy top spin, and took a huge bounce over Josh Harrison’s head. Harrison was able to leap and prevent the ball from going to the outfield, but made an off-balanced throw to first that got by Michael Morse, leading to two runs (one of which scored as a result of the bad throw). Without the crazy bounce, Morton may have gone six shutout innings, as he went on to retire 13 of the next 15 batters to finish his outing.
The Pirates did give up two more runs off of Arquimedes Caminero in the seventh inning, but that didn’t matter much. They couldn’t hit Jaime Garcia all day, with the lefty shutting them down for seven shutout innings.
“He’s pitched very effectively,” Hurdle said, while earlier noting that Garcia has been pitching great recently. “The numbers are real that we saw coming in. We saw the video tape.”
“That’s what he does,” Sean Rodriguez noted after a game where he had three of the four hits against Garcia. “He’s got a good cutter, obviously, to keep guys from jumping out over the plate. And then he’s got that good changeup and that breaking ball that goes out over the outer half and gets a lot of ground balls. You saw that today.”
The Pirates challenged in the ninth inning, bringing the tying run to the plate with two outs and Gregory Polanco pinch-hitting. But they couldn’t fight all the way back, with Trevor Rosenthal striking out Polanco to end the game.
“We came up short,” Hurdle said. “We’re going to battle. We’re going to play to the end. We fought to get some men on base. At the end of the day, we needed to make more things happen earlier than that.”
The pitching performances were a microcosm of the seasons the Pirates and the Cardinals were having. The Pirates had a pitcher who had a great outing, but it just wasn’t enough to beat the Cardinals starter who had an amazing outing, and it was all thanks to a lucky bounce that went the Cardinals way. Granted, Morton partially put himself in that situation in the second inning, but it was one bad inning in an otherwise great night.
And that’s pretty much the story of the season. The Pirates are on pace for 97 wins and are the third best team in baseball, but they are 6.5 games back from the Cardinals, who seem to have everything going their way in addition to their own strong performances. And like Morton tonight, their biggest problem is that they haven’t been perfect, instead settling for being really good.
The end result here is that the division hopes for the Pirates are almost certainly dashed. There is the possibility that St. Louis could lose a few games and head to Pittsburgh at the end of the month with a smaller division lead. But they’ve got seven games against the Reds and seven against the Brewers until that time, and don’t have the same poor history against Milwaukee that the Pirates have seen in recent years.
Anything could happen, but at this point, the only realistic battle for the playoffs boils down to whether the Pirates or Cubs will host the Wild Card game.
A More Consistent Sean Rodriguez
For most of the season, Sean Rodriguez has had one key value to the Pirates: defense. He has served as a defensive replacement at several positions, primarily at first base. The offense has struggled all year, up until recently. Rodriguez is 5-for-6 so far in this series against St. Louis, including three hits today.
“I’ve been working with [Branson] and [Livesey],” Rodriguez said after tonight’s game. “Basically we’re just trying to find that one thing that might help me be more consistent, especially coming off the bench.”
It’s not just the last two games. Rodriguez has a .378/.417/.467 line in 48 plate appearances since the start of August. So it’s possible that he might have found some consistency.
“We’ve been working all year on that, and we’ve definitely found a couple things that we hold on to, and a couple of keys that they see if I’m not doing, right away they tell me,” Rodriguez said.
It’s a small sample size of success, but it’s an encouraging sign to see Rodriguez hitting well lately, as he could be a valuable bench piece for the Pirates in the post-season with his defense and ability to play all over the field.