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Pirates ransack Cards, 9-2

Pirates ransack Cards, 9-2

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Pedro Alvarez

Pittsburgh Pirates' Pedro Alvarez, center, celebrates with teammates in the dugout after hitting a three-run home run off St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jake Westbrook during the first inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh Monday, July 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH • What could be billed as the biggest series in the history of Pittsburgh’s picturesque PNC Park started with a bang for the host Pirates.

The Cardinals’ lineup continued to put up blanks.

Second-place Pittsburgh started its showdown on the Allegheny River against the first-place Cardinals with a four-run first inning and cruised to a 9-2 victory Monday night. The win shaved the Cardinals’ lead in the division down to a ½ game and gave the Pirates a chance at first place today with a doubleheader scheduled between the two teams. The Cardinals slipped to 0-4 on this road trip – their first four-game losing jag of the season – and they have been outscored 20-5 in those games. In nine of their past 14 innings the Cardinals have been retired in order. They haven’t held a lead longer than a ½ inning on the road trip so far.

“You’re going to have times like this through the season,” manager Mike Matheny said. “You’ve got to keep your head down and keep going. … I’ve given a lot of credit to (opposing) pitching lately and frankly I’m just tired of doing that. I’ll put our offense up against any pitcher out there.”

While Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook continued his problems with PNC, Pirates lefty Francisco Liriano was exacting against the Cardinals. Following the trail blazed by three Braves starters in Atlanta this past weekend, Liriano retired the first nine Cardinals he faced. The Cardinals didn’t get the tying run to the plate until the seventh inning, and Liriano coolly dispatched Pete Kozma to end the inning and the threat.

Liriano (11-4) prolonged the Cardinals offensive funk by holding them to one run on seven hits and two walks. He struck out eight. The Pirates thumped Westbrook (7-5) for four runs on four hits and three walks before adding five runs against relievers Marc Rzepczynski and Fernando Salas.

The game forced an immediate roster question on the Cardinals as they are weighing much larger roster possibilities due to the onrushing trade deadline.

Matheny said the team would “consider” making a move for an added reliever as support for today’s doubleheader. Starter Tyler Lyons is set to be added to the roster to start Game 2 of the doubleheader, but another move would add a fresh arm to the relief mix. The Cardinals had at least one reliever at Class AAA Memphis on standby if needed.

Salas allowed three runs and both of the runners he inherited scored as the Pirates added five runs off the Cardinals' bullpen.

***

Pirates sack Westbrook for early lead

In the span of 10 pitches from starter Jake Westbrook the Pirates announced their presence with authority.

Westbrook, who has yet to win a game at PNC Park in his career, walked the lead off batter on five pitches. Things got worse from there. By the time he threw his 10th pitch of the game, the Pirates had the walk, a hit batter, a single, and a three-run homer. All of that led to a swift 4-0 lead that the Cardinals have spent the entire night trying to answer.

With their offense wheezing and Francisco Liriano dealing, it has been a Sisyphean task so far.

Pedro Alvarez clubbed his 27th home run of the season in the first inning for the three-run bolt that put the Pirates ahead 4-0. Alvarez connected on the first pitch he saw from Westbrook. He was the third batter in the first five to face Westbrook that came up swinging on the first pitch.

Westbrook faced nine batters in the first inning, and he had to pitch out of trouble in the second inning just to keep the Pirates scoreless in that frame. By the end of the second inning, the sinkerballer had thrown 54 pitches. Ten of them came in Alvarez's second at-bat. He worked a walk to load the bases before Westbrook could get the third out without a Buc scoring.

Westbrook allowed four runs on four hits through five innings.

He struck out two, walked three, and he hit three other batters. In the first inning, Neil Walker appeared to lean his lead knee into a pitch from Westbrook for the second baserunner of the inning. He didn't need to lean into the pitch in the fourth inning as Westbrook put a fastball in his hip with two outs.

The Cardinals' regulars couldn't chew into the Bucs' lead.

Liriano retired the first nine batters he faced in the game. When the Cardinals did get a couple runners on base in the fourth inning, Liriano struck out two of the leading hitters in the league. He K'd .325 hitter Allen Craig to continue the first baseman's late-July skid. He then struck out .334-hitting Yadier Molina to end the inning and strand the two baserunners.

The Cardinals didn't get a run until a replacement got involved. Pinch-hitter Tony Cruz, taking an at-bat for Westbrook, tripled to open the sixth inning. He scored on Matt Carpenter's single.

A strikeout and a double play ended that inning as quickly as it began.

***

Showdown on the Allegheny

The first pitch of this five-game series between the first-place Cardinals and second-place Pirates hasn't even been thrown and already there was a little gamesmanship.

No, it wasn't the the height of ribbon-board changes or weather delay sleight of hand.

But it was something.

The Pirates moved veteran starter A.J. Burnett to the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader. The Cardinals countered by moving Lance Lynn to the first game of the doubleheader. Manager Mike Matheny said they had selected Lynn to start the night game solely because he wanted to line up his more-experienced starter against the Pirates most-experienced starter. That meant that Tyler Lyons would draw the other assignment, and the rookie lefty will now shift to the night game.

For both teams, that also serves the purpose of putting the more reliable starter -- or, who should be the more reliable starter -- in the earlier game and keeping the bullpen fresh for the night game.

But first there's United Methodist Church Night at PNC Park.

Yes, that's tonight.

There is also a game of some importance. Jake Westbrook looks to shake his PNC flu in the first matchup of the second half between the first- and second- place teams in the National League Central.

Here is the lineup that will back him:

1. Carpenter, 2B

2. Beltran, RF

3. Holliday, LF

4. Craig, 1B

5. Molina, C

6. Freese, 3B

7. Robinson, CF

8. Kozma, SS

9. Westbrook, P

Robinson draws the start against lefty Francisco Liriano. The slick-fielding righthanded-hitting Robinson is getting a more featured run in center since the All-Star break because of his play. He's in a spot to earn more playing time with production.

Members of the Cardinals front office have descended on Pittsburgh to bunker together for the trade deadline. While GM John Mozeliak has expressed the possibility that the team will do nothing at the deadline -- especially if their only option is what he termed an "incremental" addition -- the Cardinals remain in contact with teams about potential deals. The Cardinals have been looking for a starting pitcher that would add punch to the rotation. They are willing to absorb salary, and while Phillies lefty Cliff Lee has been dangled into the open market the price for suitors has been high.

Mozeliak said his preference is not to deal off the 25-man active roster.

Check back throughout the evening here at C-Beat for more from PNC Park and the series that will determine how July will end for both of these teams.

Yes, that's right -- how July will end.

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