PITTSBURGH — When it comes to the rivalry between the Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals over the last few years, it’s been close but still one-sided.
Despite some memorable victories along the way, the Pirates went 9-10 against the Cardinals in each of the last two seasons. In 2014, they went 7-11. The last time they had a winning record against St. Louis was in 2013. That was the year the Cardinals eliminated them from the playoffs.
More so than how the Pirates were beaten, the most frustrating part of the rivalry has often been how they were beaten, with the Cardinals’ famous attention to detail and solid fundamentals frequently providing the margin of victory.
This year, the Pirates were swept in a three-game series in St. Louis in April. Since then, they’ve taken two of three twice, finishing with a 4-3 walk-off win at PNC Park on Sunday.
The Pirates are behind the Cardinals in the race for the National League Central Division and have little margin for error as they approach the trade deadline at the end of the month. If they have any hopes to pass the Cardinals and get back into contention, series wins like their last one will be the way they have to do it.
Otherwise, general manager Neal Huntington will probably be taking a long look at the veterans on the roster to see what the potential returns could be as the deadline nears. Players like Francisco Cervelli, David Freese, Josh Harrison, Andrew McCutchen, Juan Nicasio and Tony Watson may have limited days in the Pirates’ clubhouse — especially if they aren’t able to narrow the seven-game gap to the first-place Brewers.
But the thing that stood out during the Pirates’ series win over the Cardinals was how much of the contributions came from those players that the Pirates plan on having around for a while.
Adam Frazier delivered the walk-off winner on Sunday. He went 2 for 4 and was 6 for 12 in the series, seemingly on the other side of his late first-half slump.
Max Moroff hit his first major-league home run against St. Louis ace Carlos Martinez. Trevor Williams gave up two runs in 5.2 innings. Friday, it was Josh Bell with the walk-off winner and Gerrit Cole on the mound.
“It was awesome,” Bell said Sunday. “Max hitting that homer was amazing for the dugout. We were all going crazy in there. Frazier doing his thing, you almost expect it from him. … It was awesome to win.”
The young players coming through in a big way has added to a contagious attitude than can help all of the players.
“Every time something happens like that, you just can’t help but be so excited for those guys,” said shortstop Jordy Mercer. “They’re living their dream. … You get two walk-off wins in a series, that’s pretty cool. To do it against a division opponent makes it that much better. We’re playing pretty well right now and we have each other’s backs.”
The Pirates are playing pretty well right now, which will play into the decision-making process that Huntington has to make as the deadline approaches. After the series with the Cardinals, they’ve now won seven of their last nine games and have taken wins in three consecutive series.
They don’t get any easier, though. As big of a series the weekend win over the Cardinals was, the next one might be even bigger as they host the first-place Milwaukee Brewers for four games.
“It was a big win for us,” Frazier said. “A huge series win coming off the break against the Cardinals and a big series coming up against the Brewers. We’ve got a lot of work to do and a lot of games ahead. We’ll take it one game at a time.”
TRUSTING THE PROCESS
Trevor Williams went 5.2 innings and gave up two runs, which isn’t a bad line for the young starter. The things that held him back from being more efficient were the 10 hits that he allowed. Pitching with base runners on all the time isn’t typically a recipe for success and the Cardinals had runners on in every single frame.
But it’s not as if Williams was getting hit hard. He kept the ball in the ballpark and gave up just two extra-base hits — one of which was a double by Matt Carpenter that hit the chalk down the right field line.
The Cardinals were able to get runners on base for the most part because a lot of balls found grass, holes in the infield, or were just out-and-out misplayed. Three of the hits he gave up never left in the infield. Carlos Martinez drove in a run with a broken-bat flare. Only five times did a ball off the bat of a Cardinals hitter have an exit velocity of greater than 90 mph and one of those was a ground ball that was tailor-made for a double play.
In short, Williams was out there doing everything he’s trying to do by inducing soft contact and not walking very many batters (he had two). It’s just that the results didn’t quite follow the process.
“When you keep the ball on the ground, good things happen,” Williams said. “It’s frustrating, but it’s a lot better than getting hit around the yard and constantly trying to back up bases (on extra-base hits). If you keep it on the ground, guys should get out. Some times, guys are going to single you to death.”
Hurdle thinks that the more Williams is able to put the ball on the ground and have success doing it, the more successful he’ll be going forward.
“He mixed his pitches well,” Hurdle said. “He got some swing and miss when he needed it. He got some strikeouts when he needed them. Just the entire outing, you see the growth and the development. You give him the opportunities to push the game further and he’s going to do it.”
MERCER PICKS HIMSELF UP
Mercer had an embarrassing error in the ninth inning, when he let a ground ball go right between his legs. He quickly made up for it by making an F6-3 double play and then driving in the tying run in the bottom of the inning with an RBI double as the Pirates rallied.
“You look to make plays,” Hurdle said. “He didn’t make the one he makes 99 times out of 100. You’re going to get another opportunity. He gets the next one.”