ST. LOUIS -- Perhaps it was prescient on the part of manager Clint Hurdle to remove his struggling starter in the midst of an offensive opportunity. Between the Pirates' problems driving runners around the bases and the St. Louis Cardinals' seeming ability to do so at will, they would need every chance they could get.
A.J. Burnett lasted only three innings in the Pirates' 12-8 loss against the Cardinals in a game where they bent, but could not break, St. Louis starter Joe Kelly.
They also couldn't contain the Cardinals offense, which pounded extra-base hits all game. After getting to Burnett, they went to work on the bullpen. They sent nine batters to the plate in the seventh before recording an out, 12 batters in all, and scored seven runs on nine hits.
The Pirates also went to town on the Cardinals' bullpen and forced closer Edward Mujica to enter the game, but could not fully close the gap. They scored seven runs in the eighth and ninth, two on a pinch-hit home run by Josh Harrison and two on a double by Jose Tabata.
"We just kept plugging away, kept battling, having good at-bats," Harrison said. "You just got to keep plugging away and try to chip away, especially with a deficit like that. Can't get them all back with one swing."
The Pirates lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central Division dropped to one-half game in a series that, in conjunction with six remaining games against the Cincinnati Reds, will play a large role in deciding the Pirates' playoff fate.
A range of outcomes awaits them, from a division title that exempts them from the wild-card game to a one-game wild-card playoff, either at PNC Park or, if things turn further downward, a road wild-card game in Cincinnati or St. Louis. The Reds won Friday night to move within two games of the Pirates.
After Kelly returned to the Cardinals' rotation July 6, he had a 2.16 ERA in 10 starts before Friday. He pitched six innings in each of his previous four starts and allowed four combined runs.
Kelly (8-3) allowed eight hits and three walks through six innings Friday night but only one run.
Though Kelly allowed the Pirates to put runners on base, he was stingy once they got there. The Pirates left men on in five of the six innings he pitched. In three innings, the final batter struck out. Russell Martin and Neil Walker each struck out looking to end the fifth and sixth with runners in scoring position.
"Tonight, we pushed him," Hurdle said. "We were on base, we were one hit away."
Four consecutive extra-base hits to start the third led to three more Cardinals runs. Matt Carpenter tripled on a ball that Marlon Byrd thought might carom into the outfield, but it hugged the line all the way into the corner. John Jay, Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran hit RBI doubles.
"They get ahold of me here," Burnett said.
Hoping to capitalize with men on base, Hurdle pinch-hit for Burnett in the fourth. Burnett finished three innings, his shortest outing of the season, and allowed five runs and six hits.
"We wanted to go ahead and take a shot at having a big inning in the fourth," Hurdle said.
Burnett took a comebacker off his right pinkie knuckle.
"It seems to be all right for now, so we'll see how it feels [today] and go from there," he said.
The Pirates did not get a hit with a runner in scoring position until the fifth. Byrd's single with Andrew McCutchen on second put runners on first and third, and Pedro Alvarez singled to score a run. On a 3-2 pitch, Martin looked at a slider for called strike three to end the inning. Through five, the Pirates had left nine runners on base. They would strand 12.
A Bryan Morris slider high and tight to Yadier Molina in the seventh, an unintentional miss, earned a warning for both benches, so when St. Louis reliever John Axford hit Tony Sanchez in the eighth, he and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny were ejected.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published September 7, 2013 4:15 AM