MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

After sputtering start, Pirates suddenly red-hot

After sputtering start, Pirates suddenly red-hot

ST. LOUIS -- In recent seasons, any game between the Cardinals and Pirates has been a big deal. Over the last three years, these were the teams with the two best regular-season records in baseball.

This season, it might appear that, with the emergence of the Cubs, the Cardinals and the Pirates have moved to the consolation bracket of the National League Central Division. But the entire second half of the season still remains, and these clubs are used to reaching the postseason.

So it was a happy 4th of July for the Pirates, when they defeated the Cardinals, 4-2, Monday after waiting out a 1-hour, 26-minute rain delay.

The Pirates have won three of four against the Redbirds in Busch Stadium this season. Before winning a series here last September, the Bucs had dropped seven straight series at Busch and had lost 17 of 20 games overall.

This was one fundamental reason why the Pirates finished second to the Cardinals three years in a row. The Bucs qualified for the postseason all three years, but in the last two found Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta waiting for them in the Wild Card game.

Right fielder Gregory Polanco, who Monday hit two home runs in a game for the first time in his big league career. said:

"Man, it always feels great to get a 'W' here or anywhere else. And, of course, beating the Cardinals, that feels even better. They're a great team. It's always a battle with them."

Beating the Redbirds is one thing, but the Pirates have further reasons for encouragement on a general level. The Independence Day victory was the fifth in a row for the Pirates. The Pittsburgh bullpen stretched its scoreless streak to 34 1/3 innings, the longest such streak in Pirates history since 1900.

The streak ended when the Cardinals scored in the ninth Monday, but Neftali Feliz managed to record the save. Feliz was filling in at closer for Mark Melancon, who was not available because he had worked for the last three days.

Included in Monday's relief work was Juan Nicasio's eighth inning in which he struck out the side -- Stephen Piscotty, Jhonny Peralta and Yadier Molina -- on nine pitches, the minimum possible. This was just the third "immaculate inning" in Pirates history.

"I'm very glad and very grateful to be a part of that history," Nicasio said. "But my focus is still on hitting that (strike) zone."

Nicasio successfully returned to the bullpen role he had earlier in his career after opening the season in the Pirates rotation. "He bought into the new role; one inning or two innings, he's letting it eat, he's been good against right-handers all year," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "We're working on some things against left-handers so that the splits can become more competitive for him. The fastball played. The command played. Downhill angle for him, as well. Since he's been out there he's showed us some really good stuff."

In fact, the entire Pittsburgh bullpen is once again pitching up to the lofty expectations it has created with its performance in recent seasons.

"It's where it's been for the last three years," Hurdle said of the bullpen's performance. "(The early-season performance) has been the outlier. You don't quit on people. You work with them. You continue to encourage them. You look for opportunities to use them in different situations so you can find maybe different opportunities for success.

"We've stayed with some guys through some rough patches because we've had success in the past and they've supported us, as well.

"The roll they're on now obviously is, what is it, 34 1/3?"

Informed that this was the longest scoreless streak in franchise history since 1900, Hurdle smiled and said:

"Yeah, I didn't see that one either. They're in a good place, and they'll continue to work and feed off each other. A lot of good things in this game are contagious; we talk about it all the time. Something contagious seems to be going on out there."

Arquimedes Caminero, another right-hander with big ability and big velocity, has made a difference since coming back from the disabled list.

The Pirates hit a surprisingly bad patch from May 30 to June 23, going 5-18, But since then, the Bucs are 8-2 and are once again north of .500.

"We don't worry about the past," Polanco said. "What happened in June happened in June. Now we're moving forward."

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.