All season long the Cardinals have kept the Pirates at arm's length by twisting, turning and avoiding capture. In a game that played out like a microcosm of the season, St. Louis pulled another great escape and all but sewed up the division title with a 3-0 victory. Absent the most unlikely turn of events, the Pirates are now looking squarely down the barrel at Jake Arrieta and a do-or-die wild card matchup next Wednesday.
"This game was in our hands the whole game," Andrew McCutchen said. "This was our game and we lost it. We gave that game away. That's what's tough. I can take getting beat. I can't take losing and tonight we lost. We gave them the game. That makes it a little tougher."
It's been a magnificent year in so many ways for the Pirates, but yet it's never felt as satisfying as a 95-win season should. Instead, it's played out like some frustrating baseball version of Zeno's Paradox: No matter how much ground the Pirates appear to gain, they seem unable to close gap and overtake their rivals.
As is his way, Josh Harrison stood defiantly in front of his locker in an otherwise very quiet Pirates clubhouse and sounded as upbeat as a player could given the circumstances.
"We could care less what the [magic] number is," Harrison said. "The season ain't over till it's over. We're going to come back tomorrow and wipe this one off. It's a tough loss but, hey, we got another one against them tomorrow and we'll come ready to play."
Zeno's paradox was designed to show that motion is illusion and change isn't real. While the ancient Greek philosopher's metaphysics are suspect as it applies to the physical world, in the National League Central there has been great motion but very little real change for the last three years.
"We did everything but win the game," Clint Hurdle said. "We had a hard job coming in. It just got a little harder, that's all. We'll come ready to play tomorrow."
Pitching in the clutch
Heading into the game the Cardinals were pitching at historic levels with runners in scoring position and in the clutch. Their .212 batting average with RISP was the fifth lowest since 1942. Their ‘clutch' score as calculated by Fangraphs stood at 9.88 - the best in the history the statistic (1974).
Tonight the Pirates were 0-for-12 with RISP and were unable to come up with a big hit in numerous clutch situations.
"We had opportunities but didn't cash in at all today," McCutchen said. "I think it is a fluke. You kind of throw your hands up, like, ‘Man, that's kind of crazy, I don't get it.'"
Hurdle had statistics of his own when he met with the press.
"We were leading the league the National League in scoring runners from third base with less than two outs coming into the game," Hurdle said. "We were leading the league in moving runners from second base to third. We didn't meet the demands of game tonight. That's what I got for you."
Happ extraordinary again
J.A. Happ pitched one of the most efficient ballgames you're ever going to see. The left-hander threw 56 pitches over six scoreless innings. He struck out four and didn't allow a walk.
"He pitched fantastic," Hurdle said. "Another great start by him. He's given us what we've needed off the mound and given us a chance to win."
Since joining the Pirates, Happ has thrown 57.1 innings and posted a 2.04 ERA. He's walked only 10 while striking out 62.
Despite his low pitch count, Hurdle pinch hit for Happ in the bottom of the sixth after the Pirates put men on first and second with two outs.
"At that time, we needed to find a way to score a run," Hurdle said.
Joakim Soria and Tony Watson blanked the Cardinals in the seventh and the eighth.
Victory slips away
The Cardinals broke the scoreless tie in the ninth when Matt Carpenter hit a one out single and then scored a batter later when Jon Jay's single right-center was misplayed by Gregory Polanco.
"I don't know whether he rushed it [or not]," Hurdle said. "He tried to get to the ball and make a spin move and throw the ball in. He wasn't able to glove it and control it."
After Polanco failed to pick up the ball on his first pass, McCutchen followed and also had the ball slip out his hand.
"I tried to pick up a wet ball that wasn't mine," McCutchen said. "It got by him, I tried to hurry up and get it and bobbled it a little bit. You can't say that's why we lost. We had a lot more opportunities with 16 guys left on base."
Piscotty tests negative
Stephen Piscotty lay motionless near the left center field warning track after being hit in the face by Peter Bourjos' knee in a high-speed collision that was as terrifying as the catch was remarkable. As the stadium fell silent Piscotty was loaded on a stretcher and left the field on a cart. He waved his hand to the crowd, which drew a huge ovation.
Piscotty was taken to the hospital and tests came back negative for fractures or significant injury.