Pirates take Central Divison lead
PITTSBURGH – Forget about the best record in baseball, the lead in the NL Central and the buzz of a city giddily envisioning the end of two decades of despair.
After a euphoric doubleheader sweep of reeling St. Louis on Tuesday that propelled them to the top of the division, the Pittsburgh Pirates – yes, the Pirates – are ready to get greedy.
“We want more,” manager Clint Hurdle said.
Keep pitching like this, and that shouldn’t be a problem.
Three hours after Alex Presley’s grounder caromed off the glove of St. Louis reliever Kevin Siegrist and rolled into shallow left field to give the Pirates a taut 2-1, 11-inning victory in the opener, the Pirates breezed to a 6-0 victory in the second game behind rookie starter Brandon Cumpton.
Working with usual Triple-A battery mate Tony Sanchez – making his major league debut – Cumpton (1-1) scattered three hits over seven innings to extend the Cardinals’ losing streak to a season-high six straight games.
“Pitching inside has been my thing all year,” Cumpton said. “I didn’t want to get away from it. I wanted to force the issue.”
All it did was compound the issues for St. Louis, which has scored all of five runs in the last 56 innings. Even worse, catcher Yadier Molina is likely headed to the disabled list after leaving in the top of the fourth inning of the second game with a sprained right knee.
The knee has been bothering the All-Star for weeks. An MRI earlier this month revealed inflammation. After trying to play through it, Molina believes the better course of action is some rest so he can be ready for the stretch drive.
“I’m a guy who wants to be on the field playing,” Molina said. “But right now I need time.”
The injury is the latest setback for a team that appeared the class of the majors at the All-Star break but now finds itself 1 games behind the resilient Pirates. The sweep pushed Pittsburgh to a season-high 22 games over .500 (64-42). The last time their record was this gaudy was 1992, which also happens to be the last time the beleaguered franchise reached the postseason.
It’s a destination that appears well within the Pirates’ reach, even if they opt to keep their wallets closed at Wednesday’s trading deadline. A pitching staff that keeps topping itself has allowed the Pirates to overcome a series of injuries.
Cumpton didn’t even spend any time with the big league club during spring training. On Tuesday he found himself polishing off arguably the biggest day at PNC Park since it opened in 2001.
“Coming out of spring, (Cumpton) was 13th on our starting pitching depth chart,” Hurdle said. “You trust the people that are working with the players and they’ve been confident about Brandon’s improvement.”
It’s a rise that took a little while longer than St. Louis rookie Tyler Lyons (2-4), though the right-hander has cooled off since winning his first two starts in spectacular fashion earlier this year.
Lyons gave up four runs, three earned, in six innings. He struck out five and walked one but received no help from a reeling offense and some sloppy play in the field.
A couple hours after Presley’s slapper off Siegrist (0-1) won the opener, the fortuitous bounces kept on coming. The Pirates took a 1-0 lead in the second when a rare passed ball by Molina let Jose Tabata sprint across the plate. Molina was done for the night in the top of the fourth when the right knee pain he’s been battling for the better part of a month flared up again. He was replaced by Rob Johnson.
The absence of their leader further weakened the Cardinals, and things quickly fell apart.
While Cumpton kept the NL’s top offense in check, Pittsburgh poured it on with a little help from St. Louis left fielder Matt Holliday. The Pirates took a 2-0 lead on Jordy Mercer’s RBI single before McCutchen stepped in. He drilled Lyons’ pitch deep to left but Holliday appeared ready to track it down at the wall. Instead, the ball popped off the heel of Holliday’s glove and into the stands.
Lyons placed both hands on his head in shock while the packed bleachers let Holliday have it. Holliday’s night didn’t get any better an inning later when he overran Josh Harrison’s flyball to the wall, allowing Harrison to make it all the way to third.
“It’s a hard game,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said.
“Our guys have been making a lot of good plays. Every once in a while there’s tough ones you don’t make.”
Harrison never made it home, but by then Cumpton had all the backing he would require.
Cumpton needed just 87 pitches to get 21 outs. He received a loud ovation as he headed to the dugout, the latest in a series of unheralded Pirates pitchers to rise from obscurity and help propel the franchise into the midst of a pennant race.
The staff takes its cue from ace A.J. Burnett, who worked seven emotional innings in the opener. Burnett struck out nine and walked three while allowing one run on three hits. He was long gone, however, by the time Presley stepped in with Martin on in the 11th.
“It’s a battle, it’s fun,” Burnett said. “Let’s roll from here. Let’s keep going.”
NOTES: The series continues on Thursday. Adam Wainright (13-6, 2.51 ERA) starts for the Cardinals against Jeff Locke (9-3, 2.15) … St. Louis sent struggling reliever Marc Rzepczynski to Cleveland on Tuesday in exchange for minor league infielder Juan Herrera. Rzepczynski had a 7.84 ERA in 10 1-3 innings this season with the Cardinals … Pirates 2009 first-round pick Tony Sanchez went 0 for 3 with an RBI in his first major league start at catcher.