PITTSBURGH -- Hoping to pad the win column before returning to St. Louis for a homestand that will either end or extend their season, the Cardinals instead hit a roadblock that cost them valuable ground in both the National League Central and Wild Card races.
The Pirates, who entered the series having won two of their previous 14 games, stole the weekend set from St. Louis by powering their way to a 4-1 victory on Sunday at PNC Park. Home runs by Starling Marte and Jordan Luplow sealed the team's second consecutive victory.
"It's fun, at this point, to play spoiler. We're still playing for pride. We're all professionals," Pirates starter Jameson Taillon said. "We want to go out there and put our best on the line. It's fun playing against a team that's playing for something. It kind of raises the stakes a little bit."
The loss leaves the Cardinals with little chance to make a charge up the division standings over the season's last week, even with four remaining matchups against the Cubs. St. Louis trails Chicago by six games and would be eliminated from the NL Central race with one loss in the upcoming head-to-head series.
The Brewers sit a half-game ahead of the Cardinals, while the Rockies, who currently hold the second Wild Card spot, have a 2 1/2-game advantage over St. Louis.
"We just have to keep playing until mathematically you're out of it. That's how you have to look at it," Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham said. "It's a very tough situation. We need some luck."
After Jose Osuna's sacrifice fly tied the game at 1 in the third, the Pirates struck quickly against reliever Seung Hwan Oh in the fifth. Within five pitches, Oh allowed a single to Christopher Bostick and a home run to Marte, who has gone deep five times since returning from a suspension on July 18. Luplow's leadoff homer off Brett Cecil padded the lead an inning later.
The Cardinals entered the day ready to run through several relievers and received, as anticipated, three innings out of spot starter John Gant before turning to the bullpen. The offense didn't provide any wiggle room, however, as Matt Carpenter's third-inning solo shot represented the only damage done against Taillon during his five-inning start.
"We just couldn't, once again, get the big hit when we did have opportunities," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We needed a big hit. We were getting two out and men in scoring position, and bases loaded came in situations where someone's got to come through and do something really big. It didn't happen."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Bleacher shot: Susceptible to the long ball all season, Oh served up a 407-foot, go-ahead homer to Marte on an 0-1 fastball in the fifth. The homer was the 10th surrendered by Oh, but just the third to a right-handed batter. Though his overall season numbers won't finish anywhere near where he had hoped following an 80-game suspension, Marte is closing strong. He reached base three times on Sunday to improve to 8-for-17 with five RBIs over his last five games.
"The swing's coming along," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's taken him a while. This is the best consistency he's shown in the box, this homestand, with some power, with some hard contact. It's been fun to watch, and I'm happy it's happened for him." More >
RISP management: The Cardinals finished the afternoon 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and let their best scoring opportunity go untapped in the seventh. After two Pirates relievers loaded the bases with three walks, Hurdle brought in George Kontos to face two-hole hitter Pham with two out. Kontos, who had allowed 43 percent of inherited runners to score this season, induced a ground-ball out to end the threat.
"I hit the ball hard," Pham said. "It was just a tough pitch to drive. I didn't get the job done today."
Late heat: The Cardinals didn't bat with a runner in scoring position against Taillon until the fifth inning, when Carson Kelly and Aledmys Diaz singled with one out to bring up the top of the order. Taillon, who said afterward he had "a little extra in there to try to make some pitches," reached back for a 96.7-mph fastball to finish a seven-pitch strikeout of Carpenter. In the dugout, Hurdle contemplated making a call to the bullpen; Taillon had thrown 25 pitches that inning and 86 in the game, and the Pirates had two relievers up. But Taillon buckled down again, winning a nine-pitch battle against Pham with a 97-mph fastball for another strikeout.
"To go through the top of the order, that was entertaining," Hurdle said. "He was fired up for that. Big push inning, and he handled it very well."
"Nothing different. We go out to win every game every day. You're never going to get me to buy anything different. That would be a slap in the face to these guys to say they have something more than what they've already shown. It's not going to happen. We go out [and] play the game we've got every single day. Yeah, we understand the urgency and we understand all the numbers, just don't spend too much time on them because they are irrelevant to what we have to do, which is go play good baseball. That's it. Keep it simple, all the way through. Until they take the ball from us, that's what we're going to keep doing." -- Matheny, on the urgency with which the Cardinals will approach their upcoming homestand
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
This was the Pirates' final game of the season against an NL Central opponent. The Bucs finished 33-43 within the division and 20-19 at PNC Park. It was also Taillon's first win at home since July 20.
The Pirates have scored 24 runs while winning three of their last four games, a marked turnaround immediately following a seven-game skid in which they scored nine total runs.
WHAT'S NEXT Cardinals: St. Louis will close out the season with a seven-game homestand against the two teams it has been elbowing against for position atop the National League Central all season. The Cubs come to Busch Stadium first for a four-game series that begins at 7:15 p.m. CT on Monday. Luke Weaver (7-1, 2.05 ERA) is scheduled to face Jon Lester (11-8, 4.56 ERA) in the opener.
Pirates: After a day off on Monday, the Pirates will begin a two-game set against the Orioles at PNC Park on Tuesday night. Right-hander Trevor Williams will start the opener after posting a 2.12 ERA over his last five outings. Baltimore swept a two-game series with Pittsburgh in early June at Camden Yards. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. ET.