PITTSBURGH -- As they continue to try to get unstuck from this early-season goop of mediocrity, the Cardinals couldn't catch a break Friday night because a critical breaking pitch didn't have one at all.
Pittsburgh second baseman Neil Walker weathered Carlos Martinez's heat and turned the game around on Martinez's misplaced offspeed pitch. Martinez's two-strike slider caught too much of the plate in the seventh inning and a one-run lead quickly became a 6-4 loss at PNC Park when Walker launched the pitch into the right-field seats. As quickly as they had taken leads on two home runs earlier in the game, the Cardinals squandered one for good.
"We hung it," catcher Yadier Molina said. "They made us pay. That simple."
The Cardinals remain a team trapped in recursive loops, loitering around the .500 mark so far this season because the offense hasn't been enough to overcome the smallest mistakes or create a margin that allows for them. Fresh from taking two of three in Atlanta, the Cardinals faced a Pirates team, six games behind .500 entering Friday's game, that has been searching for runs and finding less success than the Cardinals. Allen Craig's three-run homer jolted the Cardinals to an early lead, and Jhonny Peralta's solo homer put them ahead again in the top of the seventh.
Like their momentum from Atlanta, neither lead lasted.
With the one-run lead provided by Peralta's eighth homer of the season and second hit of the ballgame, manager Mike Matheny went to Martinez in the seventh inning. The first two batters of the inning reached base on singles. A bunt moved them both into scoring position � the tying run at third and the go-ahead run at second. Martinez blew fire at Walker with a 100 mph fastball to start the at-bat and a 99 mph fastball that followed. Both were balls.
In the pivotal at-bat, Martinez and Molina tested Walker with fastballs that hit 100 mph twice and a breaking ball that still touched 86 mph. While that dazzled the radar gun, Walker's view of the final four pitches of the at-bat was far simpler: Fast. Faster. Foul ball. Christmas.
Walker fouled off one breaking ball before Molina went back to it, and Martinez left it flat and over the plate. Walker crushed the pitch for a three-run shot and his third hit of the game. The homer was the first allowed by the young righty reliever this season.
"That was somewhat unexpected," Walker said. "I got two sliders. He left one up."
Matheny said he had no issue with the pitch selection after Walker couldn't catch up to a 100 mph fastball.
"You can't go out there to any of these guys and keep firing the same pitch," Matheny said. "You've got to make pitches. He knows when he's using one of those secondary pitches the purpose is to get back to the pitch that you want to get them out with. You make a well-executed offspeed pitch after you do (make them) look overmatched on the fastball and the ball is out of the zone � that's a different story."
The plot twist in the seventh continued a trend.
The Cardinals lost for the fifth consecutive time when righty Michael Wacha starts. Wacha had a game complicated by a bruised shin and a rain delay, but neither kept the Cardinals from providing him with something he hasn't seen much of recently � run support. Wacha and Pittsburgh starter Francisco Liriano pitched five innings each, and when they left the game to the bullpens the score was tied 3-3. That represented the largest backing Wacha had received in his past five starts. Over the previous 28 1/3 innings, Wacha has allowed 11 earned runs for a 3.49 ERA.
The Cardinals have scored nine total for him.
The first batter Wacha faced Friday, Jose Tabata, lined a base hit off both of Wacha's legs. The baseball ricocheted off Wacha's right leg and thudded into his left shin. The righty said that he didn't have any tenderness or swelling throughout the start, even after it was briefly interrupted by a cloudburst and 25-minute rain delay.
"Definitely going to leave a nice little bruise," Wacha said.
The bruise to his line came six batters into the game when Wacha was unable to put Pirates first baseman Ike Davis away with a 96 mph fastball that was called off the plate. Matheny said the pitch was close enough to change the game. Wacha went back to the tape and determined that the fastball "was definitely off the plate." Instead of an inning-ending strikeout, Davis had another pitch to see and Wacha left a changeup over the plate for him. Davis doubled down the left-field line to score two runs. Martinez's wasn't the only offspeed pitch that led to Pirates runs.
Four of the first five base hits Wacha allowed in the game came on two strikes.
"I've got to execute another pitch (to Davis), make a better pitch after that one," Wacha said. "I've got to do a better job of putting guys away and making a better pitch when I'm ahead in the count. I've got to make my pitch instead of their pitch, especially when I have two strikes on them."
Liriano remains in search of his first win of the season, though Walker's game-tying single off Wacha in the fifth saved him from a fourth loss. The Cardinals took their first lead in the fourth inning when Peralta and Matt Holliday laced singles off Liriano. The next two batters, Matt Adams and Molina, failed to advance the runners, bringing up Craig. The Cardinals' deposed cleanup hitter had been in a two-for-21 funk this road trip, a stretch that prompted Matheny to give him Wednesday off to regroup.
His reward upon returning to the lineup was Liriano, a pitcher who he entered the game one for 12 against with six strikeouts in his career.
Craig struck out for the seventh time in the second.
Craig found his swing in the fourth.
The Cardinals' right fielder tagged an 0-1 pitch from Liriano over the center field wall and into the Pirates' bullpen for a three-run homer. His fourth homer of the season gave the Cardinals a 3-2 lead.
"Great swing," Matheny said. "There's no reason why we won't see the Allen Craig that we've seen the last few years. It's just about getting positive momentum going forward."
He could say the same about his team.
It's just been difficult to generate.
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