When you are the former first-place St. Louis Cardinals and you've just dropped four games in a row for the first time all summer, few things are less welcome than the earliest possible indications that you are about to lose a fifth.
Except perhaps those ominously similar signals that you are about to lose a sixth.
But before the very first of 20-or-so innings were complete Tuesday night, the dazzling opening scene of a pivotal doubleheader left no doubt the Pirates had every intention of raising the colors.
First, A.J. Burnett, he of the permanent Jolly Roger sneer and the impeccable PNC Park record, had the old double-play ball working.
Not the conventional kind where some hapless, would-be run-producer pounds Burnett's knuckle curve or his four-seamer toward the center of the Pirates' reliable infield.
No, I mean the kind where the estimable Carlos Beltran lines a 1-1 pitch that has begun to tail away from Andrew McCutchen in right-center field, the one it looks like McCutchen will gamble on, the one that, if McCutchen loses that gamble, might track through the alley, send Jon Jay and Matt Holliday flying home and perch Beltran at third with one out, the kind that could easily lead to a 3-0 St. Louis lead on a day the Pirates would spend some four hours of Game 1 averaging a run every other hour.
Yeah, that kind of double-play ball.
McCutchen, who was brilliant from one end of this sweeping epic to the other, screeched toward Beltran's rope, sprawled to his left and snow-coned the thing on the grass. He then hopped to his feet and doubled Holliday off first with a 150-foot throw to Garrett Jones to end the inning.
The old 8-3 DP.
Next, McCutchen doubled with two outs in the bottom of the inning and fled home when Pedro Alvarez doubled two pitches later. Did anyone phone the Cardinals dugout and mention the Pirates were 26-3 when McCutchen scores?
Good, because they're 27-3.
Alex Presley's single off reliever Kevin Siegrist's glove in the bottom of the 11th put the Pirates back in first place for the first time since they spent 12 days there on the bridge from June to July. With the calendar ready to flip again, a first-place address is incrementally more meaningful, but the PNC Park sellout didn't skimp on the delirium.
It was no accident Clint Hurdle and his staff came out of the All-Star break with Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett fronting their rotation. It was a good idea to start that way in Cincinnati July 19 and 20 (though neither won); it was a better idea to start this critical five-game series against the best team in baseball the same way. This time, both pitched dominantly, with Burnett working seven gutsy innings that had him overcoming umpires and sculpting another superb pitching line that did not get him a win. Burnett has allowed three runs or fewer in all 10 of his PNC Park starts this year.
If the Cardinals were looking for any further evidence that this doubleheader might have been pre-ordained, maybe it smacked them in the gob when last-minute call-up Brandon Cumpton went out to work the nightcap for the Pirates and wound up pitching suspiciously like A.J. Burnett.
By the time Cumpton worked into the seventh, the Pirates had a 4-0 lead capped by McCutchen's two-run homer that flapped off Matt Holliday's glove at the left-field wall and into the seats.
So a team that won the first game with a single off the pitchers' glove broke the second game open with a homer off the left fielder's glove.
If this doubleheader were a Doors song, it would have been Glove Me Two Times.
In the absence of consistent offense, a chronic condition in these parts, the Pirates again relied on their defense to maintain their focus. When the Cardinals put two runners on in the top of the 10th of the first game, Clint Barmes darted to his right to backhand Holliday's rifle shot and turn it into another inning-ending double play.
"Outstanding defense," Hurdle gushed between games. "We've tried to script that throughout the season. That's as good an infield double play as you can see in a tight situation; that ball is hot off the bat. That's one of those things that Clint Barmes can do with anybody in the game, stay with that ball."
Maybe the Pirates have played better at some point in this promising season, better than they have in winning eight of their past 11. They won nine in a row, but were they better than this?
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published July 31, 2013 4:00 AM