ST. LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 17: Starter James McDonald #53 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on August 17, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
The Pirates triumphed in a game that was every bit as close as the score, capitalizing on a series of St. Louis mistakes in the fourth inning to push across two runs that ended up being all the offense they would need. James McDonald threw six scoreless innings in his return to regular rotation work, looking much more like the starter who was lights-out in the first half than the one who has struggled since the beginning of July. He worked the corners effectively, striking out seven, and didn't allow his first hit until the fourth inning. The bullpen was likewise in early-season form, with Juan Cruz, Jason Grilli, and Joel Hanrahan converting a slender one-run lead into the eventual margin of victory.
The pivotal fourth inning began with a walk by Travis Snider, who had hit a single in the first inning, and who showed no sign of the hamstring problems that had recently confined him to the bench. Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones hit singles of their own to load the bases with nobody out, and then Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook missed badly low and outside on a fastball to McKenry. It slipped past the outstretched glove of backup catcher Tony Cruz, letting all the runners advance 90 feet and bringing Snider home with the first run of the game. McKenry followed by hitting a one-hopper right to shortstop Rafael Furcal, but it kicked out of Furcal's glove, and by the time Furcal found the handle, McKenry was safe at first.
Pedro Alvarez was up next, and when Westbrook put another ball in the dirt, Cruz let it slip right through his five-hole in a play that would've fit right in with Joggin' Ronny Paulino's career highlight reel. All the runners advanced again, and McCutchen scored the second run of the game. With two men on and nobody out, it seemed as though a truly big inning might be in the works, but Pedro hit into a fielder's choice in which Garrett Jones got caught off third base. Jones ended up in a rundown, and while he kept the play alive as long as he could, McKenry was either unwilling or unable to risk advancing to third on the play. That decision loomed large a moment later as Barmes grounded into his second double play of the game, allowing the Cardinals to escape the inning with minimal damage.
That was all the scoring until the seventh inning, when Chris Resop came into the game in relief of McDonald. He started out by allowing a single to Carlos Beltran and a well-hit double by David Freese down the left field line. It looked as though Beltran might score on Freese's hit, but Starling Marte delivered an absolute laser of a throw that stopped him in his tracks at third. That stop was key, as the Cards were able to bring one run home on a groundout by Tony Cruz, but Freese ended the inning stranded on third base after Juan Cruz came in and induced an inning-ending popup by Rafael Furcal. From that point on, a ninth-inning walk by Beltran was the closest the Cardinals could come to a rally, as the Pirates bullpen took care of business.
It wouldn't be a Pirates-Cardinals game without some kind of gamesmanship by St. Louis, and this one was no exception. On several occasions during the game, Cardinals batters showed their displeasure with the strike zone of home plate umpire Lance Barrett, and things finally boiled over in the sixth, as Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo was ejected for arguing about balls and strikes on behalf of center fielder Jon Jay. It will be interesting to see whether any of the ill feelings carry over across the rest of the series.
By winning, the Pirates kept pace in the National League playoff race. The Reds downed the Cubs 7-3, the Braves slipped past the Dodgers 4-3 in 11 innings, and the Giants scored eight runs in the third inning to open up a huge lead on the Padres in a game that's all but over at this point. It seems likely that other than an increased lead over St. Louis, the status quo will remain in effect for the standings until tomorrow. We'll pick things up again with the Cards at 4:05 tomorrow, with Erik Bedard facing off against Lance Lynn.