PITTSBURGH • The Cardinals had a chance largely to dispose of the annoying Pittsburgh Pirates the last two nights in the National League wild-card race. They didn’t even come close.
After building their edge over the Pirates for a potential playoff spot to three games with a one-run victory on Monday, the Cardinals failed to score even one run the rest of the series.
Pittsburgh third baseman Pedro Alvarez, masquerading as George Brett, drove in seven runs himself the last two nights, including bashing a three-run homer in a 5-0 Pirates win Wednesday night at PNC Park.
Whatever the Cardinals have been attempting to do with Alvarez hasn’t worked the same as it has for the rest of Major League Baseball, which is holding him to a .225 average.
In 15 games against the Cardinals, the former No. 1 pick is hitting .397 with seven of his 26 homers and a whopping 23 of his 70 RBIs.
Meanwhile, big James McDonald and tiny Wandy Rodriguez emulated Bob Gibson and Whitey Ford the last two nights. In 13 innings against the Pirates’ starting twosome, the Cardinals mustered five harmless hits, with former Houston pitcher Rodriguez, making his 21st career start against the Cardinals, holding them to three hits over six innings on Wednesday.
The Cardinals, who were blanked 9-0 on Tuesday, finished the three-game set with no runs in their last 21 innings and only one game ahead of Pittsburgh and 1½ ahead of Los Angeles for what would be the second wild-card berth. But manager Mike Matheny said that he didn’t think the Cardinals would have put the Pirates away anyway.
"There’s a lot of baseball to go," he said, hopeful of not seeing a lot more of the baseball he saw the last two nights.
The Cardinals hadn’t been blanked in successive games since June 1-2 in New York.
Hitting coach Mark McGwire is a longtime student of the game and is baffled by little. But the Cardinals’ offense, which scored 20 runs in the three wins on the trip and two in the three losses, has him stumped.
"This offense should never be shut out," said McGwire. "I’m all for tipping the hat if the pitcher is dealing. But these last two nights, (the pitchers) were very hittable.
"Getting shut out like that. . . I’m always troubled by that with this offense because our offense should never be shut out, especially by these two guys.
"We probably went out of the strike zone a little too much. But, every time we get shut out, it should never happen, unless the guy’s dealing.
"To my eyes, these guys were not dealing. They pitched well but all I know is this offense shouldn’t be shut out like it’s been the last two nights. It’s way too good."
In the series, the Cardinals had only one hit that drove in a run with a man in scoring position and that was by pitcher Kyle Lohse.
Matheny, befuddled as the next man, said, "Very frustrating. But we’ve had quite a bit of this feast or famine. It’s hard to figure out what we need to do to get it going.
"We know it will but on nights like this, it’s just hard to see it happen. You’ve got to give credit to the other team. But, we’ve said it too many times. This offense shouldn’t give too many people too much credit because we should be able to put a lot of runs up."
The Cardinals are 3-3 on a 10-game trip that will take them to Washington for the last four. Apparently a bit impatient, they have drawn a total of seven walks in the six games, with three of them coming on Wednesday by Jon Jay.
One of the few highlights was the three-inning, three-strikeout relief job by rookie Trevor Rosenthal, who had been recalled from Class AAA Memphis. Rosenthal, relieving starter Joe Kelly, allowed just one hit and, according to pitching coach Derek Lilliquist was "impressive. Very composed. Nice complement of pitches. Incredible life (on the ball).
"We’re going to fit him in any way we can."
The Pirates, playing their biggest home game in 20 years in one columnist’s determination, jumped ahead in the first inning on Garrett Jones’ two-out double which scored Travis Snider.
In the Cardinals’ first, Jay walked and then was forced at second on Matt Holliday’s grounder. But Jay made sure he slid into the legs of second baseman Josh Harrison as he sailed past the bag. It was Harrison who knocked Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina out of the lineup the previous night.
That play was one of the few sparks the Cardinals displayed Wednesday.
In the third, Alvarez, who had walloped two homers among four hits and four RBIs the night before, blasted a 3-1 pitch off Kelly for the home run which established, on this night, an insurmountable lead.
Snider and Jones both walked ahead of the home run and Kelly fell behind Alvarez, too. With righthanded-hitting Harrison up next, another walk wouldn’t have been the worst thing.
A hanging slider was.
"I started nibbling a little bit and I got myself into a hole where I wanted to throw a breaking ball but I didn’t want to leave it down the middle," said Kelly. "Bounce one and maybe make him swing or walk him.
"There’s a lot of pitches I’d like to bring back, but especially to (Alvarez), who’s hot right now. Usually, in the game plan, you don’t want to let guys like that beat you."
Alvarez also doubled off Kelly with two out in the fifth and came home on Harrison’s single.
"I fell behind too many hitters today," Kelly (4-6) said.
But Matheny indicated that Kelly would take his next scheduled turn on Monday at home against New York rather than perhaps bringing back 13-game winner Lance Lynn from his bullpen exile.
"(Kelly) gets a breaking ball up to Alvarez, which is a bad idea," said Matheny, "but overall I thought his stuff had a lot of life.
"You never want these guys walking on eggshells every time they go out for a start. That’s not right."
As for Alvarez, Matheny said, "He hasn’t gotten all of his home runs off us. But, obviously, has had a pretty good season against us. He’s the kind of player you can’t really pattern.
"It’s not like we’re just up there serving them up. We’ve tried quite a few different approaches. There’s also execution involved in that."
Besides Rosenthal, one of the few other morsels of good news for Cardinals’ fans was that the television feed was lost on Charter between the first and seventh innings. They missed nothing.