PITTSBURGH -- Two-run singles by Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina comprised a scoreless tiebreaking fifth-inning rally Thursday night as the Cardinals downed the Pirates, 4-1, landing the first punch of an early National League Central showdown between the NL's top two teams.
Between dodging a pair of early two-on, none-out jams, Esurance All-Star Game Final Vote nominee Carlos Martinez was brilliant in raising St. Louis' division lead to 5 1/2 games over the Bucs, whose winning streak ended at five games. He went 7 1/3 innings, allowing four hits, walking two, striking out eight and hitting 100 mph on his 97th pitch, in the seventh inning.
Three of the four runs in the game-breaking rally against Jeff Locke were unearned as a result of shortstop Jordy Mercer's fielding error on a slowly hit grounder by Xavier Scruggs. Locke went five innings, allowing five hits and issuing three walks with five strikeouts.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Grichuk grooves one: The four-run fifth inning was highlighted by Carpenter and Molina's singles, but the productive frame started with Randal Grichuk. In an 0-2 hole to start, the outfielder did well to leave off a 90-mph two-seam fastball and, on the next pitch, hang in there on an 80-mph knuckle-curve, which he lined to center field to open the inning.
He who hesitates, etc.: The Pirates ran themselves out of a golden opportunity to strike first, after Gregory Polanco's double and Neil Walker's single opened the first. McCutchen followed with a grounder to shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who flipped to Carpenter for the force at second. When Polanco broke late for the plate, Carpenter, instead of relaying for the routine double play, fired home to erase Polanco. More >
"We made a baserunning gaffe," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, curtly. "They were able to get something done in an opportunity, and we weren't."
Turned away, again: An even bigger shot was missed by the Pirates in the fourth, but this was all just ill luck. With men on second and third and none out, Pedro Alvarez ripped a 3-0 pitch right back up the box, and Martinez turned it into a double play with a quick toss to third. Martinez then fanned Mercer to keep the game scoreless.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Martinez's snag was more self-defense than anything.
"When you get a couple of those go your way in big situations that could get the ball rolling in a pretty bad direction for us, it's pretty important," Matheny said of the double plays.
Kolten comes back: After missing the previous two games with a concussion, Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong was cleared before Thursday's game and, while he didn't start, he did make an appearance. Wong entered as a pinch-hitter in the sixth, driving a single to left field. He stayed in the game, moving Carpenter to third base and Mark Reynolds to first.
"Always good to see a guy come back. Fortunately he didn't have to go on the DL, able to get him cleared, and right back in there," Matheny said. "He made an impact today." More >
"It's not anything new. ... It's going to leave a mark, but hey, chicks dig scars." -- Wong, on getting hit by a pitch in the back during his ninth-inning at-bat
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
• Vance Worley, the erstwhile starting pitcher squirreled away in the Pirates' bullpen, lowered his ERA in 10 relief appearances to 1.56 by putting up three more zeros.
• Molina not only stole his first base of the season, but it was also his first swiped bag since May 12, 2014.
WHAT'S NEXT Cardinals:Lance Lynn will take the hill as the Cardinals look to extend their division lead over the Pirates on Friday at 6:05 p.m. CT at PNC Park. Lynn (6-4, 2.53 ERA) faced the Pirates on May 1 in St. Louis, allowing just one run and four hits in a seven-inning no-decision.
Pirates: Cole makes his first start as an All-Star in Friday night's 7:05 p.m. ET second game of the weekend series against the Cardinals. The Majors' top winner (12-3) did not appear in the two early-season series with St. Louis so will be making his first start against the Redbirds since Sept. 1.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer and on his podcast. John McGonigal is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.