Three days ago, the St. Louis Cardinals flew to Pittsburgh for a five-game series against the Pirates leading the NL Central by 1.5 games, with a chance to put those pesky Pirates down a notch or two. Win five games and they not only shake the spirit of the Pirates a bit but all but lock up the division, extending their lead to 6.5 games.
Instead, the Pirates have won the first four games of the series, the home fans going crazy and going loud for nine innings, experiencing that rush of winning baseball in the middle of a heated pennant race. They won 5-4 on Wednesday in a game that exposed some of the recent problems with the Cardinals. On a day the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds all stood pat at the trading deadline, the biggest news of the day in the NL Central may have been MVP candidate Yadier Molina landing on the DL, even if it's just a two-week stint to rest his sprained knee. Pirates fans may have wanted a right fielder, but Molina's injury could end up being just as big a factor in the division race.
The Pirates fell behind 4-2 in the fourth inning as All-Star Jeff Locke got hit around and with ace Adam Wainwright on the mound, the Cardinals looked to be in good shape. But Clint Barmes, hitting in front of Locke, doubled in a run with two outs in the fourth, and then in the fifth, Starling Marte reached on a bunt single, stole second, advanced to third on a groundout and scored on Andrew McCutchen's sac fly.
But the run of the game -- that type of run in a big game that fans of division-winning teams remember years later -- came in the bottom the eighth. Neil Walker led off with a line single to right off a Trevor Rosenthal four-seam fastball left over the middle of the plate. With one out, Pedro Alvarez flied out to Matt Holliday on the warning track in left, but Walker alertly advanced to second on the play and then scored on Russell Martin's two-out grounder up the middle.
How often does that play happen? Only 10 times previously this season -- including once before by Walker, in a game where he scored the go-ahead run back in April against the Braves.
What we've seen over the past three days and four games are two teams more evenly matched then their seasonal run differences may suggest -- the Cardinals are +119 and the Pirates are at +61, making the Cardinals appear, on paper, the superior team. But that run differential doesn't mean anything right now. What has it gotten the Cardinals? Second place.
Walker's play highlighted one difference between the two teams -- the Cardinals don't do a lot on the bases. They're last in the NL in steals with 28 (although they did steal three bases on Wednesday) compared to Pittsburgh's 75. The Cardinals lead the NL in double plays grounded into with 103 while the Pirates have grounded into the fewest with 68. Some of that is a function of the Cardinals having more baserunners, but Holliday leads the league with 24 double plays hit into and could challenge Jim Rice's single-season record of 36. David Freese has grounded into 17.
That team speed spread shows up in the defensive numbers as well. The Pirates are third in the majors with 48 Defensive Runs Saved (entering Wednesday's action) while the Cardinals rank 26th at minus-33. Holliday, who botched a fly ball into a home run on Tuesday, has been the biggest liability at -11 runs, but center fielder Jon Jay also grades poorly at -10.
Offensively, Carlos Beltran has gone in the tank in July, hitting .250/.261/.345, with 19 strikeouts and two walks. The Cardinals rank just 13th in the NL in home runs, relying instead on their excellent approach with runners on base that has produced a major league-leading .333 average with runners in scoring position (the Tigers are second at .294).
Maybe I'm digging too deep here to find some dirt on the Cardinals, but that's sort of the point: They aren't some unbeatable super team. Jake Westbrook and Joe Kelly are in the rotation. Remember, they won just 88 games last year and 90 in 2011. We're not talking about a team that has reeled off consecutive 100-win seasons. They're deep and talented and have a farm system that is the envy of most other teams. But they are beatable.
The Pirates have a 2.5-game lead. It's Joe Kelly versus Charlie Morton on Thursday night and we have a pennant race. To the fans in Pittsburgh and St. Louis: Enjoy the ride. This is why we watch.