PITTSBURGH • In the fifth inning Sunday night with a runner on base and the game once again teetering toward squandered for the Cardinals, manager Mike Matheny marched out to the mound for an unusual visit with his starting pitcher.
The ESPN cameras, in Pittsburgh for “Sunday Night Baseball” for the first time in a generation, couldn’t translate the content of Matheny’s message.
The tone was hard to mistake.
“Classic Mike. Spitting the truth,” Miller said later. “He told me I had to find a way to get through it. … Pretty much told me, ‘You’re better than this.’”
He could say the same about the entire team.
The Cardinals got their runs early and eventually added to their lead later, but throughout Sunday’s 6-5 victory at PNC Park the pitching wobbled just enough to keep the lead in peril until the final out of the game.
Closer Trevor Rosenthal allowed one run and the bases to be loaded without an out in the ninth inning before pulling the sleight of hand necessary for a popup and a double-play ball. Rosenthal fielded a grounder and got the tying run trying to score and catcher Yadier Molina completed the double play that cinched the win and the salvage operation.
The Cardinals kept Pittsburgh, on the Sunday night national broadcast for the first time since 1996 and first time at PNC Park, from completing a sweep of the three-game series.
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The win allowed the Cardinals to return to Busch Stadium after a 4-5 swing through three cities. Miller (5-2) survived for the win because the Cardinals capitalized on an error in the first inning for four runs, and Peter Bourjos delivered with a two-out RBI single in the eighth to key a two-run rally.
Then Rosenthal walked Clint Barmes on four pitches to load the bases in the ninth and put the winning run at second before gaining his 10th save of the season.
Matheny said it “felt like a walk-off win for us.”
“It’s an understatement that we needed to pull one out there,” the manager continued. “We’re looking to see what is the one thing that will get us clicking, able to pull off some wins without being as sharp as we’d like to be.”
Staked to a 4-0 lead by the timely hitting the Cardinals have craved for weeks, Miller initiated and invited trouble through most of his 5 1/3 innings. His start was freckled by four hits allowed, multiple visits to the mound and four walks, two of which came in the fifth inning.
He walked Ike Davis in the fourth inning and the next batter, .191-hitting Jordy Mercer, lifted a sloppy cutter into the seats to chomp the Cardinals’ lead in half. Mercer’s first homer of the season left the game at 4-2.
Miller walked the leadoff batter in the fifth inning and fell behind 2-0 to No. 2 hitter Neil Walker. Molina and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist already had visited the mound in the game. Matheny made this one.
“Sometimes a little reminder is helpful,” Matheny said. “I don’t think (he) was timid. That’s not the issue. We’ve hit a spot in his last few starts here where mechanically he comes apart a little bit. I know it’s not from being tired. I don’t know it exactly what it is or we would have fixed it already.”
There were times during the game that Miller shook off Molina because he wasn’t comfortable with his command on the pitch called. Miller has been fighting a rash of walks throughout this season, and he was behind in the count he wanted to go with a pitch he knew he could throw for a strike. Fastball command to the third-base side of the plate has been tricky, and mechanically, he acknowledged, he’s “been fighting it.”
He called the entire process Sunday “a grind.”
“By no means am I pitching great right now. Almost the opposite of that,” said Miller, whose ERA rose to 3.22 and who has allowed 27 walks in 44 2/3 innings. “Eventually it’s going to turn around. But these are games we need to win.”
Matheny outlined before Sunday’s game how the team could “work harder” on improving its situational hitting. The Cardinals, so successful in such spots last season, went one for nine with runners in scoring position on Saturday and failed in four innings to score the tying run from second. That plummeted the Cardinals’ average with runners in scoring position to .229, fifth-lowest in the National League. Matheny suggested that performing better “has to do with the message.”
It sounded similar to what he delivered to Miller on the mound.
“We talk about urgency,” Matheny said. “It’s just those reminders.”
He readily had examples as the Cardinals had three RBI singles and a sacrifice fly in the first inning to send nine batters to the plate and take a 4-0 lead.
Pedro Alvarez helped with the first of his two errors that kept the inning alive for the Cardinals instead of producing a double play. Allen Craig, Molina and Mark Ellis all had hits with runners in scoring position. And Matt Adams, who has struggled in those spots this season, lofted a sacrifice fly to score the Cardinals’ third run. They had other chances to add to the lead, but didn’t until Pittsburgh had nibbled it to one.
To defuse potential rallies in the third and fifth innings, Pirates starter Charlie Morton got the double play his team couldn’t turn in the first inning. It wasn’t until the eighth that the Cardinals extended their lead. Swinging a pink bat for Mother’s Day, Bourjos fouled off two pitches and then stung a single to right field with two outs. That scored Adams and moved Jon Jay to third. Jay scored on a wild pitch for what proved to be the winning run.
The Pirates have lost eight consecutive games to the Cardinals when Morton starts, and the loss ended their four-game winning streak. The win moved the Cardinals to 19-19 through the hardest road stretch to start a season they’ve seen in nine decades. They are road weary, not road killed. They play 19 of their next 22 games at Busch Stadium, still seeking themselves.
“I don’t believe this is a .500 team, and anybody starts talking like that I think we need to re-evaluate,” Matheny said. “I just don’t think we’ve found our identity yet. We haven’t consistently seen anything. We’ve seen it on and off and everything in between.”