The legend of J.A. Happ reached a new level Friday night as the lefty tossed a three-hitter to lead the Pirates to a 9-3 victory over the Cardinals in what many termed, not so crazily, a must-win game.
Happ struck out eight and held the Cardinals scoreless over seven innings. He retired 15 in a row at one point. Everything was working for Happ; he even singled in the sixth for his first hit of the season and slickly handled a Jhonny Peralta comebacker in the seventh. After a Brandon Moss single ended his run of 15 outs in a row, Happ put an exclamation point on his performance, striking out Yadier Molina on a high fastball on his 110th pitch of the night to end the seventh.
The outing was Happ's best in a Pirates uniform, and that's saying something considering he'd allowed two runs over his previous four games.
It came at the perfect time, stopping a losing streak in the opener of a key series with division-leading St. Louis. The Pirates cut the Cardinals' lead to 5 1/2 games. It's a longshot at this point of the season, but if the Bucs are to make one last run at the Cards, it's going to have to start this weekend.
The BABIP gods smiled on the Pirates in the first inning as they took a 2-0 lead. Gregory Polanco started the game on a great note, working a nine-pitch walk. Andrew McCutchen singled, then Jung-Ho Kang, batting fourth and playing third base (that's allowed, apparently), placed a soft flare just beyond the reach of second baseman Kolten Wong to score Polanco. Starling Marte, bumped down to the No. 5 spot, got one through the left side of the infield for a single to score McCutchen.
With Happ rolling, the Pirates added two runs in the fifth on Marte's double to right-center. Defensive replacement Sean Rodriguez doubled and scored on Francisco Cervelli's single in the eighth.
The Cardinals got a run when Antonio Bastardo ran into trouble in the eighth. Tony Watson cleaned up, then the Pirates added four more in the ninth on RBI singles by Rodriguez and Jordy Mercer and a two-run double by Travis Snider. A string of Cardinals pinch hitters added a couple more runs off Jared Hughes in the ninth.
Marte finished 3-for-5 and McCutchen, Kang, Rodriguez and Cervelli had two hits each.
Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez needed 100 pitches to get through five innings, the long first inning taking up a good part of that. He was touched up for seven hits, with five strikeouts and three walks.