The St. Louis Cardinals clinched first place in the National League Central tonight with an 11-1 drubbing of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates.
Pirates starter Charlie Morton was in trouble from the start. Matt Carpenter led off the top of the first with a deep fly to left center that Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen conspired to turn into a triple. After hitting Jon Jay with an 0-2 pitch, Morton contained the early damage when he induced a run-scoring double play from Jhonny Peralta. But then Jason Heyward singled and Matt Adams followed with a double into the right-field corner, scoring Heyward and staking the Cardinals to a 2-0 lead.
Morton got the bottom three hitters in the Cardinal lineup easily in the second, but did not survive the third. Carpenter again led off with an extra-base hit, this one a double, and Morton again hit Jay with a pitch, this time on the thigh rather than on the pant leg. When Morton walked Peralta to load the bases with no outs, Clint Hurdle brought in lefty Bobby LaFromboise to face Heyward, who then deposited a 2-1 pitch into the right-field seats for a grand slam that put the game away and effectively ended the Pirates' season-long, Sisyphean quest to overtake the Cardinals and win the division.
Joe Blanton relieved LaFromboise in the fourth and pitched three strong innings. He gave up only one hit and struck out lefties Heyward and Adams, begging the question of how the game might have gone had he relieved Morton in the second instead of career minor-leaguer LaFromboise, who presumably was selected based on his ability to throw a ball with his left hand.
Lefty Tyler Lyons, pressed into service as a starting pitcher for the Cardinals after a shoulder injury ended Carlos Martinez's season, leveraged the confidence afforded by a six-run lead to dominate the Pirates' hitters. He cruised through six innings, allowing only one hit, a bloop by Aramis Ramirez in the bottom of the second that dropped between three Cardinals fielders and that was immediately erased on a Marte double play. The Pirates got three hits off Lyons in the seventh, but failed to score--one runner eliminated on a double play and two stranded at second and third with two outs. So it went all evening.
The Cardinals scored a run off Arquimedes Caminero in the seventh, added two more in the eighth off Vance Worley, and two more in the ninth on a homer by Tony Cruz off Rob Scahill. The Pirates scored their run in the eighth on a fielder's choice grounder by Jordy Mercer that scored Michael Morse after a pinch-hit double by Chris Stewart.
Unlike, say, the 1992 Sid Bream game or the 2014 Madison Bumgarner game, a glimmer of hope remains after this one: if Gerritt Cole and the Pirates can find a way to beat Jake Arrieta and the Cubs next week in Pittsburgh (or, as unthinkable as it seemed last Saturday, in Chicago), they may yet have an opportunity to avenge the humiliation that the Cardinals administered in the doubleheader nightcap today.
But for now, the Cardinals are the NL Central champions, and as painful as it is to admit, they've earned it.