Pirates one game from advancing

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High drama at PNC Park. And high hopes rewarded.

With so much riding on every pitch, the Pirates took a giant step toward eliminating the St. Louis Cardinals and advancing to the National League Championship Series with a 5-3 win tonight at PNC Park. The win gives the Pirates a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-five series. The Pirates can end it at home Monday afternoon.

The Pirates won for many reasons but primarily by excelling at a skill in which they were a dismal disappointment during the regular season -- hitting with runners in scoring position.

Time and again, starting with Marlon Byrd's two-run single in the first inning the Pirates delivered the needed clutch hit. It continued with Russell Martin's go-ahead sacrifice fly in the sixth and finished off with run-producing singles in the eighth -- which broke up a tie game -- by Pedro Alvarez and Martin.

Francisco Liriano pitched well enough for the first six inning-- three hits, two runs -- and turned the game over to the back end of the Pirates bullpen, which, this time, was not perfect.

After Tony Watson maintained the Pirates' 3-2 lead in the seventh, Mark Melancon gave up a game-tying home run to Carlos Beltran in the eighth. But with the 5-3 lead in the ninth, Jason Grilli, after allowing a leadoff single, retired the next three batters to secure the victory.

What this means is that St. Louis must beat the Pirates in two consecutive games to win the series. The Pirates can end it tomorrow or, if necessary, in a Game 5 scheduled Wednesday in St. Louis.

It is by no means over but the Pirates have the decided advantage. Charlie Morton and Michael Wacha are the scheduled starters Monday afternoon. If there is a Game 5, St. Louis will start Adam Wainwright, who dominated the Pirates in Game 1. The Pirates likely will counter with Gerrit Cole, who dominated St. Louis in Game 2.

The Pirates eighth included a monumental baserunning blunder by Andrew McCutchen, who, after opening the inning with a double, attempted to go from second to third on a bouncer to the shortstop by Justin Morneau. He was an easy out at third.

But the Pirates were not deterred.

Byrd drew a walk to move pinch-runner Josh Harrison to second. With Alvarez, who led the National League in home runs, due up, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny called on left-handed fireballer Kevin Siegrist, who had an 0.45 ERA on the season. What's more, left-handers were batting .118 against him. To make matters worse, Alvarez had a .180 batting average against lefties. It loomed as a mismatch.

It was not. Alvarez rifled a singled to right to score Harrison and move Byrd to third. After Martin fouled off a pitch on a suicide squeeze attempt, he singled to score Byrd.

For the game, the Pirates were 3-for-8 (.375) with runners in scoring position, and that does not include Martin's sacrifice fly. For the season, the Pirates batted .229 in such situations, 14th in the National League.

The Cardinals, who batted .330 in RISP situations to lead all of MLB by a huge margin, are 3-for-20 (.150) in their three games against the Pirates.

Everything it turning just right for the Pirates at just the right time.

Three down, nine to go.



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