PITTSBURGH -- Jung Ho Kang is back, and apparently, his bat is just what the struggling Pirates needed. Kang put an end to Pittsburgh's eight-game losing streak with one swing of the bat on Wednesday night, crushing a 99-mph fastball from rookie Alex Reyes into the Cardinals' bullpen and sending the Bucs to a much-needed 4-3 win.
After missing time with an injured left shoulder, Kang homered twice on Tuesday in his return to the lineup, but it wasn't enough, as closer Tony Watson served up three homers in the ninth and the Pirates' ill-timed skid continued. Kang did the job again on Wednesday, blasting a 1-2 pitch from the flame-throwing Reyes for his 17th home run -- more than he had during his standout rookie campaign last year.
"His legs are fresh, the base is strong. He's absolutely charged," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Kang, who missed more than a month at the start of the season following knee surgery in September. "Jung Ho has the ability to do some very special things. We've seen it before."
So has St. Louis. The homer was Kang's seventh off the Cardinals, against whom he's hitting .341 over his career. Incidentally, it also came on a night when the Cardinals did not go deep for the first time in 29 days.
"It was a fastball up," said Reyes, who allowed only one other baserunner in 3 2/3 innings of relief. "I missed my spot, and he put a good swing on it. [I'm] trying to execute a pitch down and away and just got out of whack with my delivery."
After getting rocked in the ninth inning on Tuesday, when three St. Louis homers turned a one-run lead into a three-run deficit, Watson nailed down his 11th save with a perfect ninth.
"It's good to get back out there," Watson said. "It's good to get the win, most important, and end this losing streak."
With the win, the Pirates pulled within a game of .500 and back to 4 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card standings. The Cardinals' 25-game home run streak ended, and they fell into a tie with the Mets for the second Wild Card spot.
"I hope that we're the one team that pulls away," said Cards starter Mike Leake, who threw 4 1/3 innings in his return from shingles. "If it comes down to the wire, it does. That's not what we would like, but it's part of playing the game, and it's part of September and October."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Welcome to The Show: Picking up after fellow rookie right-hander Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams made his Major League debut with three innings in relief. Williams had to wait his turn, watching five other Triple-A starters get promoted before he received the news on Sunday night, but he proved he was ready. Williams fired three innings, allowing only an unearned run while striking out three, and bridged the gap from Taillon to Watson to earn his first Major League win.
"Pitching out of jams is what you have to do coming out of the bullpen," Williams said. "You have to keep the guy off second base. If he gets to second base, keep him off third. If he gets to third, don't let him score. I'm just glad I pitched well enough to keep them away from home and we could keep the team in it."
Rally thwarted: Though his batting average is second among active pitchers, Mike Leake missed out on an opportunity to put the Cardinals ahead in the fourth when, with the bases loaded, he grounded into an inning-ending double play. Prior to swinging on Taillon's two-strike pitch, Leake twice bunted balls foul as the Cardinals attempted a safety squeeze. In 45 previous at-bats this season, Leake had grounded into one double play. The Cardinals finished 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position.
"Not getting the bunt down twice and then hitting into the double play, it's kind of gut-wrenching," Leake said. "I'll practice bunting and get ready for the next one."
Inefficient, but not ineffective: Taillon clearly wasn't at his best, but he managed to hold the Cardinals to two runs. He struck out five and only walked one but still needed 95 pitches to get through five innings, which was unlike the typically pitch-efficient right-hander. He has thrown a career-high 149 2/3 innings this season between the Majors and Triple-A Indianapolis, surpassing the previous professional high (149 1/3) he set in 2013.
"I thought my stuff came and went a little bit, but it came more than it went, and it came whenever I needed it in big situations," Taillon said. "Made some pitches when I had to. That's the theme of the night, bearing down and making pitches when I needed to."
Miscalculation: Back on the mound for the first time since Aug. 21, Leake may have enjoyed a much smoother first inning had he tried to make a play on David Freese's ground ball up the middle. But instead of going after the ball, he pulled his glove back, seemingly in an effort to give second baseman Matt Carpenter a chance to turn two. Carpenter, however, was not positioned to make a play. Having missed a chance to possibly start a double play, Leake went on to allow two runs in a 23-pitch first.
"A lot of times, you'll say that's a great play if you know where the defenders are behind you," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "You have to know where your defenders are from pitch to pitch, and if you do, that's a play we don't mind the middle infielders handling if you know they're behind you. But at that particular time, we had the guys playing straight up. The ball makes its way through."
"You play the game to win it. That's always the goal. Winning's better than losing. I figured that much out in this game. Winning beats the heck out of losing." -- Hurdle, on the Pirates snapping their eight-game losing streak
"He just does whatever role we put him in extremely well, because he's good and he's got an idea of what he's doing. He continues to impress us no matter what kind of situation we put him into." -- Matheny on Reyes, who struck out six in his first relief appearance since Aug. 23
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
For the first time since Aug. 9, the Cardinals did not hit a home run. Their 25-game homer streak was snapped by the Pirates, who, a day earlier, had served up five. That streak matched a National League record set by the 1998 Braves and equaled earlier this season by the Padres.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
With two on and one out in the first inning, Kang hit a grounder to third baseman Jhonny Peralta. Kang raced down the line but was ruled out by first-base umpire Mike Everitt. The Pirates would have taken a 2-1 lead either way, as Kang's grounder scored Freese from third, but Hurdle elected to challenge the call, which was quickly overturned, giving Kang an RBI infield single.
WHAT'S NEXT Cardinals The Cardinals will open a seven-game homestand on Thursday with a 6:15 p.m. CT game against the Brewers. Jaime Garcia, who draws the start in the opener, will look to replicate his season success against Milwaukee. He's limited the Brewers to one run on five hits in 17 innings at Busch Stadium.
Pirates: Coming off a series against the Cards, the Bucs will try to take advantage of a softer spot in their schedule that begins on Thursday with a 7:05 p.m. ET game against the Reds at PNC Park. Right-hander Ivan Nova, 4-0 with a 2.89 ERA in six starts for the Pirates, will pitch the opener. After that series, Pittsburgh will try to keep its dwindling playoff hopes alive during a three-city road trip against non-contenders in Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Milwaukee.