St. Louis Cardinals' Mark Reynolds, left, lunges for home plate as Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli reaches to tag him out in the tenth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, July 12, 2015, in Pittsburgh. Cardinals' Pete Kozma and Yadier Molina scored ahead of him on a bases-loaded double, but Reynolds was called out. The Pirates won 6-5 in 10 innings. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
PITTSBURGH • Precisely two weeks ago, the Cardinals had a nine-game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Central Division race. Now it is 2 1/2.
How did this happen, you say? Simple. The Cardinals have gone 5-9 since June 29 and the Pirates 11-2, including Sunday night’s improbable 6-5 win in 10 innings over the Cardinals, which gave them three wins in four games over the weekend.
But, hard as it was afterward and with his team scattering to various forms of transportation to either get to the All-Star Game, get home or to a vacation site, manager Mike Matheny wanted to make sure his team knew where it stood.
“It hurts, no question,” said Matheny. But, referencing the Cardinals’ 14-inning loss by the same score Saturday night, Matheny said, “There’s a whole lot of teams that wouldn’t have showed up today.
“To watch these guys come back and fight and the energy, even when we got down, shows a lot about this team. I wanted to make sure they do — or don’t do — is make any bigger deal of this than two games. That’s all it was.
“I told them, ‘Don’t forget what we’ve been able to do. Don’t forget what kind of team we are.’ I want to make sure they remember and they acknowledge the fact that this team has heart and what we saw tonight was a great example of that.”
After Randal Grichuk, who had three hits for the second night in a row, doubled home two runs in the top of the 10th against Arquimedes Caminero, Matheny called on ace closer Trevor Rosenthal, who couldn’t wrap up Saturday’s game when he had a one-run lead in the 10th but had to go 1 1/3 innings, throwing 27 pitches.
Entrusted with a two-run lead Sunday, Rosenthal plainly didn’t have it, allowing three runs and five hits in the 10th, failing to retire any of the last five hitters he faced after setting down two of the first three men he faced, including Pirates star Andrew McCutchen, who fanned three times as his hitting streak ended at 18 games.
The final hit, the game-winner, was by eighth-place hitter Gregory Polanco, whom the Cardinals couldn’t retire all night. Polanco had three hits and drove in two runs. On one occasion when the Cardinals intentionally walked Polanco, Francisco Liriano, an .057 hitter, knocked in two runs with a single.
“I put Rosey in a tough spot,” said Matheny. “He worked hard last night and I knew he wasn’t going to have his very best stuff. But we needed to go with our best shot. You’ve got to let him do it with his ‘less than best.’
Jason Heyward said Matheny’s message that two games doth not a season make was received loud and clear.
“It was well put,” said Heyward. “That’s the mindset I had, too. It’s a long season. It’s not won or lost right now.
“We had a blast competing. It was a fun series against this team.”
Five of the 10 games played between the teams have gone into extra innings, with the home team walking off with victory every time. The Cardinals beat the Pirates in three straight extra-inning games in St. Louis in May.
Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer said, “The last two nights were amazing.”
And Heyward said he could see the packed houses having fun, too. “If they didn’t, then they don’t love baseball,” he said.
The Cardinals had only one hit in 11 at-bats, Grichuk’s double, with a man in scoring position Sunday, and were two for 23 in that department for the last two nights.
After rookie Sam Tuivailala blew through the Pirates for the second night in a row, working a perfect ninth, fanning two, the Cardinals broke through in the 10th.
Jhonny Peralta had three hits, including his 13th homer, a third-inning drive off Liriano, and his single started the 10th inning rally. Heyward also singled with Peralta, who had to hold up on a liner, barely reaching second ahead of Starling Marte’s throw.
Yadier Molina, after fouling off two attempts, dribbled a ball toward Mercer, who flipped to second for a forceout, but a flying Molina barely beat second baseman Neil Walker’s relay to first.
Mark Reynolds was hit in the left forearm by Caminero to load the bases and Grichuk found the right-center-field gap. Pinch runner Pete Kozma and Molina scored but Reynolds was thrown out at the plate, which turned out to be a key play.
“Who would have thought?” said Matheny.
But Marte singled home a run in the home in 10th after Walker narrowly had missed a home run to deep center.
Then Rosenthal had to face Jung Ho Kang, who had had two key hits off the righthander this season, including one Saturday. Kang singled to center, putting the tying and winning runs on base and bringing Matheny to the mound for a pat on the backside for Rosenthal.
But Francisco Cervelli smoked a single over the first-base bag and the game was tied again at 5-5. Briefly. Rosenthal had suffered his second blown save, both at the hands of the Pirates.
Now, before fans think about stepping out onto that proverbial ledge, they should consider that there is a big schedule switch beginning Friday after the All-Star break.
The Pirates, who have won just two more than they’ve lost on the road this year, will play 12 of their next 16 games away from home, with the four at PNC Park against Eastern Division leader Washington. Meanwhile, the Cardinals, the best home team in the majors at 31-11, will have 14 of the next 16 at home, with the two road games against the Chicago White Sox, where a well-rested Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez tentatively are slated to pitch.
Be that as it may, though, there is a race going on.
Matheny, asked if at the beginning of April, he would have taken a 2 1/2-game lead into the All-Star break, didn’t take the bait.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” he said. “I don’t put limitations on us.”