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Cardinals LOB Pirates to fringes of NL Central race

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The websites will list tonight's final score as 3-0, but that doesn't feel right. The Pirates gave the Cardinals fits. Their starting pitching was dominant. They drew walks like Joe Morgan facing a Little League pitching staff. They were on base all night.

And yet, somehow, they have nothing to show for it. In the end, the Bucs completely failed to score, then gave up three runs in the ninth inning and lost, making their quest for first place in the NL Central ever more improbable.

The game was also marred by a nasty injury to Cardinals outfielder Stephen Piscotty, who struck his head against Peter Bourjos' knee while the two were trying to catch a ball in left center. Piscotty was on the ground for about 10 minutes afterward and was removed on a stretcher. The Cardinals announced after the game, however, that all tests on him were negative, so it seems like he'll be okay -- very luckily, I'd say, based on how it looked at the time.

After a quiet first inning, the Pirates loaded the bases in the second, only to have their inning cut short when Jason Heyward collected a fly ball in shallow center and then threw a dart to get Starling Marte at home. The Bucs loaded them again with one out in the third, when Lance Lynn got a big strikeout against Marte and then a groundout from Neil Walker.

Nearly every inning was like this. In the fifth, Gregory Polanco led off with a double, but got thrown out at third on Josh Harrison's grounder. In the sixth, Steve Cishek walked the bases full (getting some help along the way thanks to a diving catch by Heyward on Jordy Mercer's liner), but Seth Maness got Polanco to fly out. In the seventh, the Pirates loaded the bases for a fourth time, but Kevin Siegrist got Pedro Alvarez to fly out.

And so on and so on and so on. It got to the point where the specifics became irrelevant. Cardinals pitchers have held batters to a ridiculous .215/.297/.331 line with men on base this year; that's been one of the keys to the team's runaway success. So this dancing-through-raindrops routine wasn't entirely new one for them. But tonight they elevated it to an art form. Tonight they were Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The Pirates wound up with six hits and 10 -- 10! -- walks. And no runs. They went 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position and left 16 men on base.

That would have been incredibly frustrating in any circumstance, but it was even more so tonight, because J.A. Happ was cruising. He had, by any reasonable measure, a much better evening than Lynn did. In six innings, he struck out four, walked none and allowed just one hit, exiting only because his turn in the order came up during one of the many innings in which the Pirates were threatening to score.

After Joakim Soria pitched the seventh and Tony Watson the eighth, things finally fell apart for the Bucs in the ninth. Matt Carpenter singled with one out, and Jon Jay grounded a single to right center. Polanco missed while trying to pick it up, and then Andrew McCutchen, coming in behind him, did too, and Carpenter came all the way around to score. That play was deflating, but I guess it turned out not to matter much. A few pitches later, Mark Melancon missed his target by about a foot and gave up a two-run homer to Mark Reynolds that put the Cardinals up by three.

This game being the way it was, the Pirates rallied in the ninth but failed to score. McCutchen led off with a walk, and Marte singled. Then Walker rallied from an 0-and-2 count and ended up having an impressive 11-pitch at-bat against Trevor Rosenthal. Walker's efforts came to nothing, though, when he finally struck out. Rosenthal then got the last two batters to end it.

The Pirates were, to some extent, done in by their own mistakes tonight, but for the most part, they played like an excellent team and just didn't come through when they needed to. After the Cards' half of the ninth, the broadcast showed what I'm guessing was thousands of fans heading to the exits. That was their prerogative, and the game did run late, but I wouldn't have left if I were them. The Bucs were this close to blowing the game open all night. Would it have been that strange if they'd loaded the bases in the ninth ... and then actually gotten a hit? Maybe it would have. I don't know. They turned out to be right. I guess I can't argue with them.

What I do know is that the Pirates can now start prepping to face Jake Arrieta and the Cubs in the Wild Card game. They're now four games back in the NL Central with five to play. They theoretically still can upend the Cardinals, but now it's going to take a miracle.