ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Cardinals might not have the best collection of hitters in the National League, and they have struggled to produce runs many times this season.
But they are a team of grinders, and that, according to Pirates starter Gerrit Cole, is what makes them so difficult to pitch against. They are patient at the plate and more often than not capitalize on a pitcher's mistake at critical junctures in a game.
Cole found out the hard way Monday afternoon. He was cruising along with a two-run lead in the seventh, but he made one mistake -- a two-seam fastball that didn't hit the spot he wanted it to. It cost the Pirates the game.
Pinch-hitter Kelton Wong made Cole pay for the mistake, hitting a two-run homer that tied the score. Three batters later, Matt Holliday drove in the go-ahead run with a single as the Cardinals beat the Pirates, 5-4, in the first game of a critical three-game series before a crowd of 43,347 at Busch Stadium.
The win coupled with the Milwaukee Brewers' 4-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs put the Cardinals (74-63) in sole possession of first in the National League Central for the first time this season. St. Louis started the day tied with Milwaukee (73-64) for the division lead.
The Pirates (71-66) fell three games behind the Cardinals and lost a one-run game for the second day in a row after building an early lead.
Cole said he threw the two-strike pitch he wanted to Wong, but left it too far over the plate.
"I executed that pitch two batters earlier to [Daniel] Descalso in almost the same kind of count, but I just didn't get it in there and threw it right in [Wong's] wheelhouse," Cole said. "He's a really good hitter; he has hurt us late this year before. It is frustrating.
"These guys are as good as anyone in the National League. They are the toughest lineup top to bottom in terms of stubbornness, sticking to their approach, grinding out at-bats -- so I think I definitely wasn't as sharp as I was last time [he pitched], but this is one of those situations where you just have to give credit where credit is due."
Cole (7-5) was in control again most of the way Monday. He gave up eight hits and five runs while striking out four and walking three.
As much as he wanted to have the pitch to Wong back, earlier in the game he gave up a key two-run double to Holliday on a good pitch that Cole said the red-hot left fielder made a great adjustment to hit.
Holliday was 2 for 4 with three RBIs and has driven in 12 runs in the past three games. Cole said what makes him such a tough out is his ability to generate power and put even a great pitch in play.
"Holliday continues to just get it done when he needs to get it done," Cole said. "I mean, the guy is unbelievable. I didn't make some pitches but ... like I said, we got the ball on the inner half of the plate to Holliday when he hit the double, but it either wasn't high enough or low enough because he put a good swing on it.
"He is probably the strongest human in the world because you jam him and he puts it on the warning track in right center. And then you get him on his front foot and he almost takes [Jordy] Mercer's glove off [with a line drive] with one hand on the bat.
"I mean he is just tough, and you really have to be able to execute to face these guys because that's the way they are set up -- it is grind, grind, grind and then, 'bam' they murder you."
Cole stayed in to face one more batter after Wong's homer, but center fielder Jon Jay tripled to left. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle brought in reliever John Axford to face St. Louis rookie Oscar Taveras.
Axford walked Taveras before Holliday's single drove in Jay with the winning run.
The Pirates had plenty of opportunities to generate a big, early lead against Cardinals starter Lance Lynn, but failed.
The Pirates, who stranded 11 baserunners, had a chance to blow open in the first after taking a 2-0 lead. Neil Walker doubled to drive Josh Harrison, who singled, and Andrew McCutchen, who doubled.
Russell Martin drew a walk, putting runners at first and second with one out. But Ike Davis popped out to Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, and the inning ended when Jay ran down a ball off the bat of Starling Marte in deep center field, making a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch.
"The play by Jay in the first inning may have won that game," Hurdle said, noting that two runs likely would have scored if the ball had dropped. "The fact that we weren't able to push across some runs despite having multiple opportunities ... we just need to keep fighting, keep playing hard."
The Pirates left runners in scoring position in the second and third, too. In the fourth, Harrison tried to score from third when first baseman Matt Adams mishandled a throw from Molina but was thrown out at the plate.
Harrison was on second when Andrew Lambo hit a dribbler in front of the plate that Molina fielded and threw to first. The ball popped out of Adams' glove, but it bounced right to second baseman Pete Kozma who picked it up and threw to Molina at home ahead of Harrison's slide, squashing another prime scoring opportunity.
"It took a perfect throw to get me, and he made it," Harrison said of Kozma. "If I had to do it again, I would run again because I saw the play, got a good jump and was going to be aggressive. Like I said, it took a perfect throw and catch and then tag to get me out and give them credit, they made it."
Lynn labored through six innings, gave up eight hits and three runs but he never gave in and that gave the Cardinals the chance to hang around and come from behind.
Seth Maness (6-3) got the final two outs of the seventh and earned the victory. Trevor Rosenthal pitched a scoreless ninth to post his 41st save this season.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.
First Published September 1, 2014 5:30 PM