After the Pirates limited the National League's best offense to just one run in the first 18 innings of a three-game series, the Cardinals finally punched back Sunday.
And it didn't take long for them to spoil any sweep dreams.
The Cardinals rattled rookie starter Kris Johnson for five quick runs as they beat the Pirates, 7-2, at PNC Park.
The Pirates (79-57) and Cardinals (79-57) are tied for first place in the National League Central Division with 26 games remaining, with three games left against each other.
"They got the momentum off the mound that we had the past couple nights," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Making his first career start and just his second appearance, Johnson allowed five earned runs on seven hits in two-plus innings, chased from the game after allowing two runs in the third.
"Maybe things sped up on him a little bit," said catcher John Buck, who watched video of Johnson's only other outing. "He was a little erratic. His stuff was there, we just fell behind in counts. With a lineup like that, you can't do that."
It was a far cry from his major league debut, when he allowed two earned runs over six innings and gave the Pirates a chance to win in extra innings Aug. 18 against Arizona.
"He didn't come anywhere near having the command [Sunday] that he did against the Diamondbacks," Hurdle said. "For me, that was the big difference."
The stakes were a bit higher this time around with a head-to-head matchup against a division rival that also happens to be the best-hitting (.270) and best-scoring (652 runs) team in the NL.
And the Cardinals might have been playing with a little extra motivation after scoring one run in their previous three games.
"These are the kinds of situations you want to be put in," said Johnson, who admitted to being more nervous Sunday than in his previous outing. "I just didn't take advantage of it when I had the chance. I worked all my life to get here, and I fell short [Sunday]."
It didn't help that he was pitching opposite Joe Kelly, one of the hottest pitchers in the majors. Kelly allowed one earned run on four hits in six scoreless innings to improve to 7-3 this season.
It was the sixth consecutive victory for the second-year pitcher, who went 5-0 in August with a 2.08 ERA. Since Kelly permanently joined the rotation July 6, the Cardinals are 9-1 in his outings.
"Kelly's been a stopper for them for the past month and a half," Hurdle said. "He was able to add enough to the fastball and change speeds enough to keep us off the bases."
He held the Pirates hitless from the second inning to the sixth, when Marlon Byrd's RBI single scored Andrew McCutchen and gave the Pirates their first run of the game. At that point, they still trailed by six runs.
"He comes right after you," said Buck, who went 1 for 4. "His slider looked like it had a little more depth, and he was painting the corners."
Kelly struck out five and walked two, throwing 104 pitches, 68 for strikes.
Johnson needed 37 pitches to survive an ugly first inning in which the Cardinals took a 3-0 lead. He was erratic, throwing 19 balls, walking two and tossing two wild pitches.
Johnson gave up three hits in the inning -- a leadoff double to Matt Carpenter and back-to-back RBI singles to Allen Craig and Yadier Molina. Jon Jay's sacrifice fly drove in St. Louis' third run of the inning.
Before Johnson recorded his second out, the Pirates already had Jeanmar Gomez warming up in the bullpen.
He allowed one hit in a scoreless second, but his outing unraveled in the third. Back-to-back singles to Craig and Molina gave way to a bases-clearing double by David Freese that ended Johnson's outing.
He said the Cardinals are a challenging lineup to face, especially considering their success hitting with runners in scoring position.
"If you still make your pitches, more often than not, things are going to go your way," he said. "I just didn't do that."
Gomez stabilized the game for the Pirates, striking out two in three scoreless, hitless innings.
Hurdle said he opted for Johnson instead of Gomez because he liked having a left-hander on the mound against the Cardinals, and he wanted a bit more length than the 50-pitch limit Gomez would provide.
Johnson's control problems forced him to leave the game after 54 pitches, 31 of them strikes. Gomez threw 29 in his three innings of work.
The Cardinals extended their lead in the sixth by scoring two runs off of reliever Justin Wilson. Kelly sparked the rally with a two-out single, the first of three hits the Cardinals got off Wilson to move ahead, 7-0.
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published September 1, 2013 9:00 PM