PITTSBURGH — The St. Louis Cardinals are running out of time to make their September surge extend their season beyond the first day of October.
Seung Hwan Oh's difficult season hit another low point when he surrendered a go-ahead two-run homer to Pittsburgh's Starling Marte in the fifth inning on Sunday as the Pirates pulled away for a 4-1 victory to blunt the Cardinals' momentum heading into the regular season's final week.
St. Louis dropped 2 1/2 games behind Colorado for the NL's second wild card, mustering just four hits against Jameson Taillon and five relievers while falling to Pittsburgh for the second time in less than 24 hours. The Cardinals headed home for a seven-game homestand starting on Monday against the Chicago Cubs with little wiggle room left.
"Yeah we understand the urgency," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. "We understand all the numbers. We just don't spend too much time on them because they're irrelevant to what we have to do. What we have to do is go play good baseball, that's it."
The Cardinals came into Pittsburgh riding a sweep of Cincinnati. They leave having dropped two of three to the Pirates. On Saturday night Pittsburgh chased Lance Lynn in the first inning of an 11-6 romp. On Sunday the Pirates relied on five strong innings from Taillon (8-7) and pounced when Oh (1-6) ran into trouble in the fifth.
With the score 1-1, Pat Bostick singled against Oh leading off the inning and Starling Marte followed with his seventh home run . The drive was the 10th allowed by Oh this season in 62 appearances. He gave up just five in 76 games a rookie in 2016.
"Obviously, everyone can see how it is, very tough," Oh said through a translator. "None of the fastballs or off-speed pitches are working well."
Jordan Luplow went deep an inning later off Brett Cecil to give Pittsburgh a three-run cushion. Taillon laboured at times through his final home start of the season and needed 95 pitches to get 15 outs. He kept the Cardinals in check and five pitchers combined for hitless relief, with Felipe Rivero striking out two in a perfect ninth for his 19th save in 21 chances.
"The command was a little off, but he made pitches at crunch time throughout the game," Hurdle said of Taillon. "His competitive fire was burning."
Matt Carpenter hit his 22nd home run for St. Louis but the Cardinals went 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position and left eight men on base. St. Louis had a chance to close the gap in the seventh, loading the bases with two outs. Pittsburgh reliever George Kontos got Tommy Pham to hit into a forceout to end the threat.
"We were getting two outs, men in scoring position, bases loaded," Matheny said. "Someone's got to come through and do something really big and it didn't happen. It's not easy to do."
Taillon's first full season in the majors included a battle with testicular cancer that forced him to miss more than a month. He's endured an uneven year on the mound and has only worked into the seventh three times since returning from the disabled list in June. Still, the 25-year-old lowered his ERA this month to 3.91 in four starts.
"That was my goal I committed to in September, specifically after that little layoff I had," Taillon said. "I really wanted to finish strong, so it felt strong to have a good one."
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle praised Taillon's mettle in the fifth, when Taillon battled through a pair of one-out singles to strike out Carpenter and Pham.
"He showed the guys in the dugout something," Hurdle said. "I think he threw one fastball at 97. He threw some curveballs that were sharp even though the pitches were over 30. To see that fight, he had good stuff today. The command was a little off, but he made pitches at crunch time throughout the game. His competitive fire was burning."
Cardinals: 1B Jose Martinez is dealing with a sprained left thumb and a timetable for his return is uncertain. Martinez had an MRI in St. Louis on Saturday that revealed no serious damage. Martinez flew to St. Louis after leaving Friday night's win against the Pirates in the sixth inning due to pain in the thumb.
Pirates: SS Jordy Mercer was held out of the lineup after exiting Saturday night's victory with soreness in his left knee.
Cardinals: RHP Luke Weaver (7-1, 2.05 ERA) starts Monday against the Cubs and LHP Jon Lester (11-8, 4.56). St. Louis is 4-11 against Chicago this season.
Pirates: RHP Trevor Williams (6-9, 4.18) starts Tuesday versus Baltimore and RHP Kevin Gausman (11-10, 4.61).
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