The St. Louis Cardinals made a bold move to acquire right-handed pitcher John Lackey at the trade deadline from Boston, and Monday night the Pirates found out why they gave up a lot to get him.
Lackey pitched seven solid innings and allowed only one run in a 3-2 win before a crowd of 24,352 at PNC Park in the first of a pivotal three-game series between the two National League Central Division rivals.
St. Louis (71-59) is in second place in the Central and in first place in the NL wild-card race. The win also allowed the Cardinals to move 4½ games ahead of the Pirates (67-64).
This is the week the Pirates were hoping to make a move in the division as they play three home games against the Cardinals and then three home games against the fourth-place Reds (63-68) but it obviously didn't get off to a good start.
Francisco Liriano (3-10), who was coming off his worst start of the season, didn't factor into the decision but he rebounded nicely and pitched well enough to put the Pirates in position to win.
At times, though, he seemed to be more resourceful and gritty as he threw six scoreless innings, struck out eight and allowed only four hits and three walks. He threw 91 pitches but only 53 for strikes.
"It felt great to go out there and keep the team in the ballgame," Liriano said. "[Monday night] my fastball was a lot better than my last start. It feels good, but we got the loss. [Lackey] is a great pitcher, he had pretty good location and they are a good team."
The key early in the game for Lackey (13-8) and the Cardinals was survival as he clearly didn't find his groove until about midway through the third. He had to pitch out of major jams in the first and second.
In fact, the Pirates hitters seemed to be on the verge of busting open the game against Cardinals in both innings but Lackey somehow found ways to avoid disaster. Not surprising, those missed early opportunities came back to haunt the Pirates as the Cardinals came from behind with one big inning.
In the first, Josh Harrison led off with a double and, after a Travis Snider groundout, advanced to third on a single by Andrew McCutchen.
Neil Walker then hit into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play, though Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta had to make a really difficult play to field the ball to get McCutchen at second for the first part of the double play.
In the second, Pedro Alvarez broke the scoreless tie with a long solo homer to center field, his 18th this season and third in three days. The Pirates weren't done, however, as Starling Marte and Jordy Mercer reached on singles and Liriano sacrificed them over to set up a second and third with two outs.
Once again, though, Lackey got out of the jam when Harrison flied out to left to end the inning.
McCutchen, who was 3 for 4 with a home run and an RBI, said the first few innings were frustrating because he felt as if the Pirates should have come up with at least a few more runs, if not knock Lackey out of the game.
"That is the game, the way it goes sometimes, we had a few more opportunities than they did we just weren't able to key on them," McCutchen said. "They got big plays when they needed them, they got big hits when they needed them. [Lackey] got a little lucky, that is the way I look at it. We got hits but we weren't able to get the big one.
"We hit some balls hard, we had one guy who hit two of them right at a person. Sometimes that is just the way the game goes and he was able to get out of it, so, sometimes it is better to be lucky and I feel like [for Lackey] it was a little bit of luck."
Lackey then settled in and, after McCutchen singled in the third, dominated the Pirates and retired the final eight hitters he faced before he was relieved by Pat Neshek.
Liriano cruised through the first five innings but the Cardinals finally had a bit of a breakthrough in the sixth.
Matt Holliday doubled with one out then Liriano walked Matt Adams and Jhonny Peralta to load the bases. But Oscar Taveras, a rookie considered to be one of the top young players in the Cardinals organization, swung at a pitch outside the zone and bounced into a double play to end the inning.
Liriano remained in the game to start the seventh but when Kelton Wong led off with a single he was replaced by Jared Hughes and that's where the trouble began for the Pirates -- though things got off to a good start for Hughes when he picked off Wong for the first out of the inning.
"This was a well pitched game by both sides, both starters and so there was not much wiggle room for error," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Cardinals catcher Tony Cruz singled and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Lackey and, after a walk by Matt Carpenter, Cruz scored on a pinch-hit single by John Jay. Carpenter and Jay scored to give the Cardinals a 3-1 lead on a single by Matt Holliday.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise. First Published August 25, 2014 11:19 PM