PITTSBURGH -- Before the Cardinals broke through against starter Jeff Locke in the fifth inning Thursday night, the Pirates seemed to be the aggressors in the first game of a critical four-game set between the National League Central rivals.
Pittsburgh had three scoring opportunities within the first four innings, but each one went to waste. When presented with the same opportunity in the fifth, St. Louis broke through and went on to beat the Bucs, 4-1, at PNC Park.
"We definitely had chances and opportunities in this game," Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "With a good team like the Cardinals, you've got to be able to come through in those situations more times than not."
Instead, the Pirates finished the night 0-for-3 in those chances -- and 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position.
Their first shot came right away, as Gregory Polanco doubled and Neil Walker singled to begin the Pirates first. McCutchen came up with runners on the corners and bounced the first pitch he saw toward third base.
Mark Reynolds fired the ball to second base, forcing out Walker. Still, the play should have scored Polanco from third to give the Pirates an early lead.
But Polanco hesitated for a moment, giving Matt Carpenter enough time to throw home. Yadier Molina reached up for the high throw, bent down and tagged Polanco before his outstretched left leg touched the plate.
"We had a baserunning gaffe," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
"A ball hit that soft, you want to react right away. If you don't react, you know you should probably stay at the base," added McCutchen. "Next time that happens, I'm sure he's going to take off for home. These are things you learn. That's how you grow in the game."
The Pirates came up short again in the third, when Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez struck out Walker and McCutchen to strand runners at first and second.
Pittsburgh's best chance to break the scoreless tie came in the next inning. Jung Ho Kang was hit by a pitch, Francisco Cervelli singled to left and both runners advanced on a wild pitch.
Up came Pedro Alvarez, who lined a 3-0 fastball right back at Martinez. The young right-hander reached down to grab the liner, turned and threw as Reynolds raced across the bag to double off Kang at third.
For Martinez, that began a stretch of 12 straight batters retired in order. He worked into the eighth inning, and by the time he was done, all the Pirates could do was look back at the opportunities they missed early on.
"Then he settled in. He made pitches," Hurdle said. "But three out of the first four innings, we had a chance to push runs and we weren't able to get it done."
Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.