Youngster Wacha shuts down Bucs, forces fifth game
PITTSBURGH – Andrew McCutchen swung as hard as he could, the Pittsburgh Pirates star aiming for the seats in right-center field and the two-run homer that would put his team in the NL championship series.
The ball didn’t cooperate. Instead, it floated harmlessly off McCutchen’s bat and into the awaiting glove of St. Louis second baseman Matt Carpenter in shallow center field for the final out in the Cardinals’ 2-1 victory Monday, sending the NL division series to a decisive Game 5.
“I wish it were a little more of the barrel,” McCutchen said. “It would have been a great story.”
It was, just not for the Pirates.
St. Louis rookie Michael Wacha baffled Pittsburgh over 7 dominant innings, allowing just one hit to help the Cardinals fend off elimination yet again and tie it at 2-all.
The NL Central champions are 7-1 over the last three years with their season on the line. Game 5 is Wednesday in St. Louis.
It’s the kind of resilience the Pirates are trying to build themselves. Baseball’s most surprising playoff team showed during the regular season it could take a punch, shaking off numerous setbacks to win 94 games.
They’ll have to do it one more time if they want to reach the NLCS for the first time in 21 years.
“A lot of the guys in the clubhouse have never even been on a winning team, let alone the playoffs,” Pittsburgh starter Charlie Morton said. “I really think it’s not about where we’ve been in terms of overall experience but where we are now. I think we’ve done a great job of that and staying in this thing level headed.”
Pittsburgh will need to rely on it after getting handcuffed by a 22-year-old kid barely a year removed from college. Wacha overwhelmed the Pirates with an expert mix of fastballs and changeups that took some of the buzz out of a record crowd at PNC Park, which started the day chanting Wacha’s name and ended it shuffling out in silence.
“I guess that’s why we play five,” McCutchen said. “We’ll be ready for the fifth one.”
Ace Adam Wainwright will start for the Cardinals and rookie Gerrit Cole is going for the wild-card Pirates. Both pitchers won last week in the NLDS.
Hurdle said he settled on Cole over veteran A.J. Burnett because of Burnett’s struggles at Busch Stadium, where he was rocked for seven runs in two-plus innings in the series opener.
“We have one game to win,” Hurdle said. “I believe that matchup is the best we can do to beat the Cardinals in Game 5.”
Pedro Alvarez hit his third home run of the series, connecting with one out in the eighth for Pittsburgh’s only hit. The Cardinals weren’t much better, finishing with only three hits, but that was enough. Matt Holliday got two of them, including his two-run homer off Morton in the sixth.
Morton, in the midst of a career renaissance a year following reconstructive elbow surgery, had been pounded by the Cardinals this season, going 0-2 with a 7.90 ERA. Faced with the biggest start of his life, he nearly matched Wacha’s run at perfection.
Save for a single to right by Holliday in the first and a walk to Beltran in the fourth, he had no major issues until he pitched around Beltran leading off the sixth. Beltran began the day hitting .333 in the series with a couple of home runs while Holliday had just two hits through three games.
Holliday’s second hit in three trips against Morton was more than enough to extend the Cardinals’ season. He turned on Morton’s fastball and sent it into a helping breeze that left no doubt.
“You could go back and look at pitches over and over again and second guess yourself,” Morton said. “I don’t know where that pitch was. It was outer third somewhere, thigh-down and he went out and got it, he’s strong.”
So is Wacha.
Working so quickly the Pirates never had time to get settled, he breezed through Pittsburgh’s revamped lineup like it he was in extended spring training, not a pressure-packed elimination game.
Wacha’s lone stumble came with one out in the eighth, when Alvarez got the fans roaring with his homer. Russell Martin walked on four pitches to chase Wacha in favor of Carlos Martinez.
Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina threw out pinch-runner Josh Harrison on a botched hit-and-run and Martinez struck out Jose Tabata to end the eighth.
Rosenthal entered and walked Neil Walker with two outs to set up a showdown with Pittsburgh’s MVP candidate. Rosenthal fell behind 3-0 but battled back and sent a cutter to McCutchen that he feels he narrowly missed.
“I felt like he gave me a pitch and I just ran out of barrel a little bit,” McCutchen said. “I looked at the film and it looked like it cut a little bit at the end and went right off the end of the bat.”
And sent the series right back to St. Louis for a 24th – and final – meeting between two teams that have been shadowing each other all summer and into the fall.
Notes: Alvarez is the first Pirates player to record an RBI in his first five postseason games. … The four combined hits between the two teams was the fewest in Pittsburgh postseason history.