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Quick hits: Cardinals tumble in finale to Pirates, head home primed for playoff opener

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PITTSBURGH — If the Cardinals’ goals during their victory lap along the Allegheny River at the end of their National League Central schedule included keeping several pitchers sharp, getting several regulars rest, sorting through several options in the bullpen, and, most of all, staying healthy as they did so, they were successful.

Mostly.

They just didn’t win a whole bunch while doing so.

With six games against the Pirates to close the regular season – not one of them able to change the Cardinals’ playoff seeding as the NL Central champ – the Cardinals lost three of the final four. They botched early leads in all three of the games this week at PNC Park, including misplacing a three-run lead Wednesday before losing 5-3 to Pittsburgh. That loss dropped the Cardinals to 40-41 on the road.

It is the first time they’ve had a losing record on the road since 2017.

The Cardinals’ lone injury coming out of the three-game visit to PNC Park was closer Ryan Helsley’s jammed right middle finger. The team and the pitcher did not expect the soreness or stiffness to linger beyond two days of rest, and the right-hander said Wednesday afternoon that he would be ready to pitch Friday as the Cardinals open a best-of-three series against the Philadelphia Phillies at Busch Stadium.

What the Cardinals did get in the loss Wednesday was the desired innings from rookie lefty Matthew Liberatore to keep the bullpen fresh and a solid inning from Jordan Hicks to get the bullpen closer to full strength. Liberatore lost the three-run lead when he allowed five runs on six hits. He boosted the Pirates’ offense with four walks in his five innings of work. Pittsburgh scored four runs in the fourth inning. Miguel Andujar’s leadoff triple sparked the rally that also included a RBI double from Diego Castillo and an old-school bunt to move two runners into scoring position.

Castillo's double in the fourth tied the game, 3-3, and the Cardinals never really challenged to retake the lead once the Pirates had it.

The Cardinals finish their 131st season in the National League with a 93-69 record. Game 1 of their wild-card series against Philadelphia begins at 1:07 p.m. St. Louis time Friday.

Hicks darts through inning

Back from the injured list just in time to prove he can be an effective option out of the bullpen in the wild-card series this weekend, Hicks let it rip at 100 mph and pitched effectively through a scoreless inning. Three pitches into the sixth inning, Hicks had allowed a leadoff double and collected a groundout.

The right-hander, who missed several weeks after experiencing some tingling that stopped short of his fingertips, threw 15 pitches. Through the eighth inning, those 15 included the 10 swiftest pitches of the game.

Hicks got three groundouts and allowed two hits. One of the groundouts came at the plate when shortstop Tommy Edman snapped a throw for the tag. The second base hit Hicks allowed was a single on a full-count pitch by Pirates’ rookie Ji Hwan Bae. The outfielder lashed a 101-mph pitch to left for the two-out hit. The outing was as routine as the Cardinals wanted. He did not want a better. He did not lapse into long counts or go upside down in several. He showed the velocity the Cardinals wanted to check and the control they needed to see before considering him for a spot in the playoff bullpen.

Molina makes final PNC appearance

Yadier Molina’s final regular season at-bat of his career came at the same ballpark where his first major-league at-bat happened. More than 18 years after he made his major-league debut with the Cardinals at in June 2004 at PNC Park, Molina made his first appearance of this season finale. He pinch-hit in the seventh inning for leadoff hitter Lars Nootbaar.

The Pirates players paused the game long enough for an ovation to grow.

The Cardinals’ catcher, who did not catch an inning in the three-game visit as he rested for a playoff push, worked the count to 2-2. From the moment he stepped into the on-deck circle to his swing that made contact, Molina was cheered. And when there was a pause in those cheers, chants for an appearance from Albert Pujols slipped through.

Molina lined out to second base.

As he returned to the dugout and down the steps for the final time in Pittsburgh, Molina received an ovation.

Arenado returns, hits, sets record

A slight gripe from his quadriceps during groundball work Monday scratched Nolan Arenado from the lineup for the first two games of the series in Pittsburgh. He would have played in a playoff game, and requested some innings and at least two at-bats Wednesday as a way to get ready for the postseason. How he used them: added an RBI and set a record.

Arenado’s RBI single in the third inning widened the Cardinals’ early lead to 3-0. He claimed his 103 RBI of the season to give finish his back-to-back 100 RBI summers for the Cardinals and his seventh consecutive 100-RBI year in a full season.

In the bottom of that same inning, Arenado started a 5-4-3 double play to surpass a record more than 60 years old. Arenado’s 42 double plays this season is one more than the record 41 set in 1958 by Ken Boyer.

The Cardinals had a chance to set another defensive record by completing Wednesday’s game without an error. They did not. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Paul DeJong, playing second base for the first time this season, threw wide to first base and committed the Cardinals’ 66th error of the season. That ties the franchise low set in 2019.

Former Cardinals finish with Bucs

Johan Oviedo's final two starts of the season came against the team he started the season with. Oviedo closed out his first half season with the Pittsburgh Pirates by pitching four innings against the Cardinals, the team that traded him in August. Oviedo, a right-hander, was pressed into the majors in 2020 to help the Cardinals through that tricky thicket of doubleheaders. He was back in the majors earlier this season and then ultimately sent to Pittsburgh in the deal that acquired starter Jose Quintana and reliever Chris Stratton. Oviedo was the major-league piece of that.

He's thrown his way into the Bucs' rotation and plans for the future, as he showed with solid starts against his former team. Oviedo allowed three runs (two earned) on six hits. He did not walk a batter.

A walk was the only blemish on Junior Fernandez's line. The right-handed reliever was plucked off waivers by the Pirates earlier this season when he was bounced from the Cardinals' roster. Fernandez pitched a scoreless fifth inning that helped get the Pirates time to rally.

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