The Cardinals are the major leagues’ best team at hitting with men in scoring position. The Pittsburgh Pirates, exactly 99 points lower than the Cardinals’ .328 mark, are the third worst in the majors at this craft. And Friday night at Busch Stadium it showed, especially in the early innings.

Pittsburgh, nursing a 1½-game lead in the National League Central Division, went nothing for four in the first two innings with men in scoring position as the Pirates had Cardinals starter Joe Kelly in position for a knockdown.

Kelly rope-a-doped his way out of both spots, stranding five, and then the Cardinals struck for a triple and three doubles in succession in the third to spike a two-run lead to a five-run edge.

In six scrambling innings, Kelly would leave 10 Pirates on base and, after he left the game, the Cardinals exploded for nine straight hits good for seven runs in the seventh as they coasted — and then lurched — to a 12-8 win that sliced the Pirates’ lead over them to a half-game and created a winner-takes-first-place game tonight at Busch with Adam Wainwright going for the Cardinals.

With no real previous bad blood between the contenders, a rout suddenly was spiced in the Cardinals’ seventh when umpire Tony Randazzo issued a warning after Pirates righthander Bryan Morris, who said he was throwing a slider, had a pitch go up and in to Yadier Molina, with the Cardinals’ All-Star catcher spinning into the dirt. A couple of pitches later, Molina got his evens, sending his 11th home run 415 feet to left field. Before that at-bat, Molina, who has been beset with knee and wrist ailments, had been three for his last 28.

“A pretty swing,” said manager Mike Matheny. “He’s tough. He’s going to stay in for an at-bat.”

Veteran John Axford, relieving in the eighth, hit Pirates pinch hitter Tony Sanchez in the shoulder area and was ejected from the game, as was, by rule, Matheny. Axford said the pitch “just got away” and that he didn’t have any reason to want to leave the game that soon.

“I had a good opportunity to build off my outing of last time (in Cincinnati) when things were going well,” said Axford. “Two hitters, I’m out of the game. Obviously, it was not my intention and not (to) put Jake Westbrook (his emergency relief) in that situation, either. That was pretty upsetting to me.”

Westbrook, just off the disabled list, was hustled into the game, and an error by shortstop Pete Kozma helped lead to a four-run Pittsburgh eighth. The Pirates shoved across three more runs in the ninth before Edward Mujica, who shouldn’t have had to be used, entered to record his 36th save and what remained of the Busch paid house of 40,608 prepared to enjoy the postgame fireworks after watching a lengthy display of them during the 3 hour, 47 minute tussle.

Matheny paid little heed to what happened late in the game. “I look at it as a very good win. That’s what it was,” said Matheny.

“We saw some of the things that we were wanting to see. We wanted to see our offense come alive (the Cardinals were nine for 20 with men in scoring position). That happened.

“We needed to see a good outing by Joe Kelly. And he did that again. We didn’t finish it quite like we wanted to, but it was a very good win.”

Kelly (8-3), beating the Pirates for the third time in the last five weeks, posted his eighth straight victory. Kelly worked his customary six innings, walking three and giving up eight hits.

The righthander has worked exactly six innings in his last five starts, winning all of them. In his three starts against Pittsburgh this season, Kelly has permitted only two runs in 18 innings, and he’s given up one run or none in nine of his last 10 starts, posting a 1.70 earned run average since the All-Star break.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, “Tonight we pushed him. We were on base. We were one big hit away but ...

“It’s no secret. I mean, he’s been doing it for six weeks. He’s very competitive out there. We got him to bend but we couldn’t break him.”

Matt Carpenter, fast inserting himself as a most valuable player candidate, tripled, doubled, scored three runs and drove in one as he equaled Albert Pujols’ mark for most hits in a season at Busch III at 98.

“Wow,” said Carpenter. “I wasn’t aware of that. That’s pretty cool.”

Carpenter’s double in the seventh was his 47th of the season, easily the most in the league, as he sparked the rally that tore the game open.

“People are remembering his name,” said Matheny. “He’s continuing to do some pretty impressive things with the doubles he’s hitting, the runs scored and the defense he’s playing, too, shouldn’t be overlooked.

“I think the league’s taking notice. I think they started a long time ago, but they’re starting to see him as a different caliber player.”

Carpenter, up to .317 in average, has a wide lead in extra-base hits on the club with 64, a total 12 more than the next man (Beltran).

“I don’t think anybody would have guessed that,” said Carpenter. “But it’s been a pretty good ride so far.”

Jon Jay, who had been nothing for 13 and one for 21, broke out with three hits, three runs scored and three runs batted in.

Among the Cardinals’ 16 hits were seven doubles, two by Matt Holliday, and a bunt single in the seventh by Kozma, ending his nearly month-long slump, which had reached 33 fruitless at-bats.

The Cardinals, after scoring two in the first, then jumped A.J. Burnett (7-10), who had beaten them three times in a row this season, for four consecutive extra-base hits, a triple by Carpenter and run-scoring doubles by Jay, Holliday and Beltran in the third.

“We all could tell early on (Burnett’s) command wasn’t what we’re used to seeing from him,” said Carpenter. “He walked me to lead off the game and Jon was able to get a base hit and we had first and third really before he could even get into a groove.”

The first nine hitters to bat against a bevy of Pittsburgh relievers in the seventh all hit safely. Daniel Descalso doubled, Kozma beat out a bunt, Carpenter doubled, Jay singled, Holliday doubled, Beltran singled, Molina homered, Matt Adams singled and pinch hitter Tony Cruz singled.

This was the most consecutive hits in an inning by any team in the majors this season.

Carpenter, asked if he had been a part of nine straight hits, replied, “Yeah, in ‘tee ball,’ I believe.

“Not in the big leagues. That was pretty crazy.’’

Rick is a baseball writer/columnist at the Post-Dispatch 

Rick Hummel is a Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.