PITTSBURGH -- The list of teams the Cardinals are trying to chase down over the season's final days dropped from three to two on Friday, as St. Louis parlayed a come-from-behind 4-3 win over the Pirates into a move up in a pair of National League races.
"It was amazing, all the way around," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "A lot of guys contributing. Just one of those [wins] that you put a mark next to that showed a lot of grit."
After scoring two ninth-inning runs off Pirates closer Felipe Rivero, the Cardinals retreated to the PNC Park visiting clubhouse, where attention quickly turned to two televisions. One showed the early innings of the Rockies' game in San Diego. The other featured two division rivals, Milwaukee and Chicago, locked in a tie game late.
These are the teams the Cardinals intend to keep in their sights.
The Cubs later won an extra-innings affair to ensure they'd maintain a five-game division lead over the Cardinals. The Cards, though, no longer have to look up at the Brewers. Milwaukee fell a half-game back of St. Louis in both in the NL Central and Wild Card races.
The Cardinals will enter the weekend trailing the Rockies by 1 1/2 games for the second Wild Card spot after Colorado beat San Diego.
"It's a fun stretch right now," Cardinals starter Michael Wacha said. "It seems like this team never gives up, and we're always in it. We've been playing some hard games on this road trip. It's been a lot of fun."
The club has stayed relevant by reeling off four consecutive victories since being swept out of Wrigley Field, and it took another run of resiliency on Friday to push it closer to a postseason return. The Cardinals squandered an early two-run lead and gifted the Pirates a go-ahead run in the seventh, but they answered back with the help of some unlikely contributors.
A leadoff double by Stephen Piscotty sparked some life into an offense that had been shut out since the second inning. Carson Kelly, a late-game insertion, moved Piscotty to third. And Jedd Gyorko, pinch-hitting for Matt Carpenter, drove him in with a game-tying single.
"The win today, when you're trailing in the ninth and facing one of the best closers in the National League, to go out there and make something happen is pretty big," Cardinals first baseman Jose Martinez said. "Every game is important to us. No doubt about it."
The Cardinals then grabbed the lead when Dexter Fowler put a ball in play that shortstop Jordy Mercer, looking to turn a quick double play, couldn't handle cleanly. Fowler, who had driven in the Cardinals' first run of the night, has tallied 11 RBIs during a six-game hitting streak.
"We weren't going to get [Fowler], anyway. You've got to take a risk and try to turn it right there so that run doesn't score," Mercer said. "That's your only hope: Get a double play and get out of it without that run scoring. You've got to give credit to Matheny for putting that guy in motion in that situation. If he didn't, it's a double play and we're out of it with no runs."
Both starters, Wacha and Ivan Nova, allowed two runs over five innings. Nova worked around additional trouble with a handful of double plays. Wacha got a key double play, too, to stop the Pirates from adding on after they had already scored twice in the fourth.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Double trouble: With the game tied, one out and runners on the corners in the seventh, Matheny summoned reliever Matt Bowman with the hope that he could help St. Louis escape a jam with a inning-ending double play. Bowman did his job, inducing a ground ball to shortstop Paul DeJong, but from there, everything else went off-script. DeJong's flip to second baseman Kolten Wong sailed into right field, allowing pinch-runner Max Moroff to trot home from third and give Pittsburgh its first lead.
"That's sometimes the collateral damage that can come from shifts," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "I don't know what happened, but it looked like it's a regular play, then he saw the second baseman's not where he anticipated him to be and got hung out. … Just goes to show that sometimes the game looks easy and sometimes it doesn't look easy. You can't take things for granted."
Old friend, current foe: Back at PNC Park for the first time since the Pirates let him go, Juan Nicasio closed the game with his first two-inning appearance of the season. Cognizant of his workload -- Friday was Nicasio's 73rd appearance -- the Cardinals have been hesitant to push the reliever too far since acquiring him earlier this month. But he rolled through the eighth on five pitches, and that gave him a leash to go back out for the ninth, which he finished with 12 more.
"Just an experienced arm with great stuff," Matheny said. "I know he's anxious to pitch and anxious to be a part of a team that's doing what we're doing right now."
"You know what type of guy he is, what type of stuff he's got and his demeanor. He's having a heck of a year all the way through," said Mercer, Nicasio's former teammate. "He's going to go out there and compete, give everything he's got. His stuff speaks for itself. It's a tough at-bat. You've got to grind it out, hope he makes a mistake and leaves something over, get on base and start a rally. You're not looking to do too much right there."
"You have to be ready every time. It doesn't matter. It can be two months without a save. You have to be ready any time. That's not an excuse for the closer. You have to be ready in any situation."-- Rivero, the Pirates' closer, on pitching in a save situation for the first time since Sept. 5
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
The Pirates had played seven straight games and a season-high 63 consecutive innings without committing an error. Before making two errors on Friday, both of which led to runs, their most recent error came in the fourth inning on Sept. 12 in Milwaukee.
Two months ago at PNC park, the Pirates took two of three from the Cardinals, and the NL Central rivals left with nearly identical records -- the Cardinals at 44-47, the Pirates 44-48. Since that series ended on July 16, St. Louis has gone 37-25 while Pittsburgh has gone 25-37.
After taking his place at first base for the bottom of the seventh, Martinez was pulled from the game due to continued soreness in his left thumb. The Cardinals consider the issue serious enough that they will fly Martinez back to St. Louis on Saturday to have it examined by team doctors.
"I've been trying to play through it, but I don't think it's going to be a good idea to go up there and give some at-bats away," Martinez said. "It feels really bad when I'm swinging. I'm going to take a couple days off and come back, maybe, in the homestand."
WHAT'S NEXT Cardinals: The series at PNC Park will continue on Saturday, when Lance Lynn makes his penultimate start of the regular season in a 6:05 p.m. CT game. Lynn, who has a 3.09 ERA, has held the Pirates scoreless in two of his three starts against them this year.
Pirates: The Bucs and Cards return to PNC Park at 7:05 p.m. ET on Saturday. Right-hander Gerrit Cole will start for the Pirates, looking to lengthen his track record against the division-rival Cards. In 13 career starts, Cole owns a 2.75 ERA against St. Louis. Cole is eight innings shy of reaching 200 for the second time in his career.