Even as the Pirates ascended to the top of the standings, as fans packed PNC Park to watch their team grind through their main division opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals remained the potent squad from the season's first four months.
There would be no five-game sweep after the Pirates' 13-0 loss Thursday night against St. Louis, which ended a seven-game losing streak. The Pirates had to settle for taking four out of five and enter a weekend series against the Colorado Rockies with a 1 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central Division.
Asked what he would tell his players after the blowout, manager Clint Hurdle said: "Absolutely nothing. We just won four out of five from the Cardinals. I got nothing for them."
The Cardinals were relentless against Charlie Morton, finding ways to put runner after runner on base. Some arrived via hard-hit balls, some from the familiar well-placed choppers and grounders that result from Morton's sinker.
Morton (3-3) allowed 10 hits and five runs across six innings. He walked one batter, but hit two. Morton put several Miami Marlins on base in his previous start, allowing nine hits in five innings.
Morton said he felt better Thursday than he did in Miami and understood the reality of relying on a sinker.
"When guys are putting the ball in play, they're going to get hits," he said. "The thing is, do I adjust my game plan to try to avoid contact?"
The start meant a lot to Morton, who missed a chunk of the season while finishing rehabilitation after Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery. Performing well against the Cardinals with the chance for the sweep, after his teammates had battled all season long, was important to him, he said.
Morton battled his command all game, which he and Hurdle attributed to his release point and tempo.
"Any time you throw the ball somewhere you don't want to, it's the release," Morton said.
The Cardinals, who have scored the most runs per game in the National League and had hit .333 with runners in scoring position entering the game, looked the part Thursday night after four games of poor offense. They went 8 of 20 with runners in scoring position and pounded 17 hits, five for extra bases.
"It's been gut-wrenching," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of the losing streak. "As much as we've been staying the course, that doesn't mean we are going back and throwing parties. It's something that you fall asleep thinking about it and wake up thinking about it."
Jeanmar Gomez did not help matters, allowing six baserunners before recording an out in the seventh. He was charged with seven runs in 1/3 of an inning. The Cardinals sent 12 batters to the plate in the seventh, scored eight runs and pounded six hits.
"We kept the cat in the bag for [three] days," Hurdle said. "The cat got out tonight."
Eight batters went to the plate in the Cardinals' three-run fourth. Allen Craig walked to lead off. Matt Holliday and David Freese singled. With the bases loaded, Morton hit Jon Jay to force home a run.
Tony Cruz hit into a double play, scoring another run. Pete Kozma grounded a single up the middle to score one more.
Morton quickly got into trouble again in the fifth. Carlos Beltran and Craig hit consecutive singles. A grounder moved the runners to second and third, and Morton hit Freese, making him the second hit batsman and loading the bases.
Morton then struck out Jay and forced Cruz to ground out, leaving the bases loaded and keeping the Cardinals' lead at 4-0.
In the sixth, pitcher Joe Kelly bounced a high chopper over the head of third baseman Pedro Alvarez. Matt Carpenter's sacrifice bunt sent Kelly to second, and Beltran sliced an RBI double past a diving Andrew McCutchen to give the Cardinals a 5-0 lead.
Despite control issues, Kelly (2-3) prevented hard contact. He walked four in six scoreless innings. He allowed three hits, all in the fifth.
"He had that youthful excitement to him from the first pitch," Matheny said. "Joe needs to put this one in his archives. This is who you should be."
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published August 2, 2013 2:45 AM