Trips to the mound breathe life back into Cardinals

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Another black-clad PNC Park army rocked toward its crescendo in the approaching twilight, rising in intimidation and creating an absolute din, exactly as prescribed.

The St. Louis Cardinals looked at it, felt it, acknowledged it?????????and shrugged.

In the delirious moments after Pedro Alvarez homered with one out in the eighth inning, ending the longest no-hit bid by a rookie pitcher in postseason history (thanks Elias Sports Bureau), after Russell Martin drew a four-pitch walk that instantly brought the blackout army back to full boil, St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina stood from his crouch and took a slow walk to the mound to comfort pitcher Michael Wacha, and a slow walk back with all the combined urgency of a man going round-trip to his mailbox in a bathrobe.

A strikingly similar thing happened two innings earlier, when Wacha surrendered his perfect game with a four-pitch walk to Martin as well. Immediately, third baseman David Freese strolled to the bump to say something brief and correct and soothing.

"It got pretty rowdy in there to start off [the sixth], so Freese came up there and he said, 'Hey, take a couple of deep breaths; keep attacking the zone like you have been,'???" Wacha said. "I kind of listened to him, took a couple of deep breaths and I was able to get out of the inning pretty smoothly.

"Then whenever Yadier came out there after the homer when I dropped behind in the count, he was trying to say the same thing, just keep attacking the hitters and coming at them."

This is no small part of the reason the Cardinals have won eight of the 10 division series in which they have appeared, why their record in those 42 episodes of postseason drama is 28-14, and why no one can even feign surprise at the plain reality that they've regained control of this struggle.

They don't blink.

They haven't been to the World Series thrice since 2004 for nothing.

They can confirm reservations in the National League Championship Series with a win Wednesday night in Missouri, where they beat the Pirates six times in nine tries this summer.

An unmistakable taste of flashback descended in Game 4 Monday, unless somehow you think you haven't seen this Pirates sequence before: They got a commendable performance by their starting pitcher (Charlie Morton), a tremendous clutch effort by a platoon of relievers (Vin Mazzaro, Justin Wilson and Mark Melancon), and they did not get a win.

You don't need Elias to tell you that teams who don't bother to get a hit for the first two hours of a ballgame generally don't fare that well.

The Pirates' last chance at eluding this morning's predicament came after Martin walked in the eighth and Josh Harrison pinch-ran for him. Manager Clint Hurdle deployed the hit-and-run with pinch-hitter Jose Tabata -- I couldn't pick a Pirates player I would like to do that with less -- and Molina, who had just returned from the mailbox, gunned out Harrison easy as you please after Tabata swung through a 3-1 pitch.

"That's the chance you take with a hit-and-run," Harrison said. "Jose tried to put a swing on a tough pitch. [Reliever Carlos Martinez] throws hard; he's quick to the plate. You live and die with those with chances.

"If it works, you look like a genius, if not, you live to play another day; it's baseball."

True enough, but I'm not sure I love taking Martin out of a one-run game in the eighth. Once you've done that, you've told the Cardinals you're either going to run Harrison or hit and run, and frankly, I like his chances better on a straight steal.

Moreover, what's the hurry?

You've finally got Wacha out of the game, you're about to overturn an entire afternoon of utter suffocation, and you can't wait to try and run into an out?

"We were going to put [Harrison] in motion and have Tabata try to get a ball on the ground, open up a lane and make something happen," Hurdle said. "He just swung through the ball. Unfortunately, we weren't able to put it in play."

For all of that, it wasn't as if the Pirates blinked in Game 4, either. The hairline difference was the nature of the two homers that produced all the runs.

Alvarez's was the Pirates' seventh of this series, their most in a postseason since 1979, but like 25 of his 36 in the regular season, it came with no one on base.

Matt Holliday's homer, the ninth postseason homer of his career, came after Morton had walked Carlos Beltran to start the sixth, and that's rarely been a bad idea in October.

There remained one final aural assault by the blackout army, coming as it did with two outs in the ninth and Neil Walker on first with a walk.

Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal missed the strike zone with a fifth consecutive pitch, falling behind Andrew McCutchen, 1-0, as the "M-V-P" chants came in volleys from the record crowd of 40,493.

Time for another slow walk, this one beginning at the steps of the visiting dugout.

Mike Matheny, the only manager in Cardinals history to take the club to the postseason in his first two seasons, sauntered to the mound and delivered another soothing message to Rosenthal.

McCutchen popped out to end it.

There is no doubt the Pirates have it in their capabilities to extend this miraculous baseball season beyond Wednesday night, but if they think the Cardinals will be of any help, they can forget it.

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Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com. First Published October 7, 2013 5:32 PM


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