PITTSBURGH • Whether it was Mike Leake’s return to the mound or Brandon Moss’ search at the plate, two Cardinals veterans entered Wednesday’s game with questions clinging to them.
The answers will tilt the wild-card race.
To separate themselves in the increasingly claustrophobic National League standings, the Cardinals intend to turn to Leake for an abundance of quality innings and Moss for more of the same power that has become the leading constant they can count on. They got neither Wednesday.
Pittsburgh infielder Jung Ho Kang broke a tie in the eighth inning with a leadoff home run to send the Pirates to a 4-3 victory at PNC Park. Pittsburgh’s victory ended its eight-game losing streak and dropped the Cardinals into a tie with the New York Mets for the league’s second wild-card berth.
The late break of the game underscored how early Leake left it — in the fifth inning — and how often the Cardinals left opportunity on base. Leake and Moss combined for a handful of at-bats that would have generated movement toward a run.
Only once did it happen.
“When you’re in tight games, and it just felt like this was going to be all the way, we’ve got to execute,” manager Mike Matheny said.
“Gut-wrenching,” Leake called his missed chance.
The Cardinals return to Busch Stadium for the penultimate homestand of the season and a decisive stretch newly challenged by the Mets. The Cardinals remained true to their season by going 5-4 on the road trip, opening up a 4½-game lead on the Pirates but losing ground to the Mets (74-66). The defending National League champions and the Cardinals (73-65) have the same winning percentage, though the Cardinals have played two fewer games. The Mets have the far friendlier schedule with games remaining against moribund Minnesota and the twin teardowns in their own division, Atlanta and Philadelphia.
The Cardinals have been nourished by power that included a league-leading total of homers and a league-record run of consecutive games with at least one home run. That ended Wednesday at 25 consecutive games, leaving them tied for the NL record. While others mashed on the 10-day road trip, their leading slugger, Moss, did not. He returns to Busch with the same number of homers — the same number of hits — with which he left. A zero-for-four Wednesday extended his slump to zero for 26 on the trip. Three times he had a runner in scoring position and a chance to shape Wednesday’s game. Only once did he even nudge the runner ahead 90 feet.
“This is easily the biggest funk I’ve ever been in,” Moss said. “Obviously nobody knows that they’re in an oh-for-whatever more than I do. You go up there and you try to not feel it every at-bat. You try not to think about it. You try not to press for something to break it. It’s natural. You also kind of take solace in those at-bats where there’s a situation to get a job done.”
In the sixth he did. An error in the outfield allowed Yadier Molina to reach second with no outs. Moss dutifully grounded out to the right side of the infield, and Randal Grichuk followed with the RBI single to tie the score at 3-3. Moss’ mission, accomplished.
In the eighth, Molina doubled to open the inning. Moss has felt a beat behind at the plate, but had another chance to move a runner closer to being the go-ahead run. He got the count full and then fished after a changeup from Pirates rookie Trevor Williams, in his debut.
“You’re in your head thinking about what you need to do, you’re not seeing the ball, you’re not swinging at strikes,” Moss said. “Over there they know I’m in a funk. The pitcher knows it. The catcher knows it. They know that I’m trying to do anything I can to get that guy over. It’s the perfect time to take advantage of a guy.”
Four times the Cardinals had a runner in scoring position and less than two outs. Only once did they find a way to produce a run. In the fourth, two singles and a walk off Pirates starter Jameson Taillon loaded the bases for Leake.
Leake made two stabs at a bunt.
Having failed both of those he hit into the only thing worse, a double play.
“He gets the bunt down,” Matheny said, “we get a run.”
Making his first start since painful shingles rippled through him, Leake allowed three runs on nine hits through his 4 1/3 innings. Two of those runs came in the first inning, which played out a lot like games have for Leake. There was a slow leak of hits and runs. Only one of the four hits in the inning was a line drive, but the ground balls that got through helped Pittsburgh create a 2-1 lead. Twenty pitches into Leake’s start and the Cardinals had Alex Reyes hustling to warm up for immediate relief before a double play steadied Leake’s return.
The Cardinals chose Leake ahead of Reyes for the start, in part, because it allowed them to address two issues with one move. Leake, a quality start monster at his best, would alleviate some of the innings foisted on the bullpen even as Reyes’ return to the bullpen would give the Cardinals one more power arm for important relief innings. One addition offered two improvements. Reyes asserted his value with 3 2/3 innings of relief Wednesday that included six strikeouts. He gave up one more hit than he got, but that one was Kang’s 17th homer of the season, the difference in the game.
A day after allowing three homers in the ninth to lose a game to the Cardinals, Pirates lefty Tony Watson secured the save Wednesday. For his final out he retired Matt Carpenter, who hit the game-tying homer 24 hours earlier.
That brought closure to the game, to the road trip.
A few Cardinals come home still carrying questions.
“We’re all capable of doing special things,” Leake said. “Right now, Carlos (Martinez) is kind of the one keeping us with consistency and keeping us afloat. Reyes came in and he kept us afloat, and still is. I think it’s just a matter of just continuing to get better.”