PITTSBURGH -- Matt Carpenter hasn't felt right since he came back from an injury more than a month ago. That didn't stop him from hitting a stunning, record-breaking home run on an 0-and-2 pitch from one of the toughest left-handed relief pitchers in baseball.
Yadier Molina doesn't even value home runs much. That didn't stop him from hitting his first grand slam in four years to get the whole thing started.
The St. Louis Cardinals continue to have a strange relationship with the home run. Even as they live and die with it -- never more than in Tuesday's 9-7 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates when all of their runs came from the long ball -- they aren't quite sure what to make of this barrage.
"I've been on a team that didn't hit many and we won a championship," Molina said. "I don't care about homers."
Carpenter's solo blast off Tony Watson broke the major-league record for pinch-hit home runs. The Cardinals, amazingly, have hit 15 of them this season. They also have hit at least one home run in 25 straight games, putting them two away from tying that major-league record. Last year, the Cardinals hit 137 home runs and won 100 games. This season, they have bashed 201 (with 25 games left) and will have to get hot to win 90, so maybe Molina has a point.
Still, they're kind of handy. The Cardinals have nearly put away the Pirates, who have lost eight straight games and now trail by 5.5 games for the second wild-card spot. It remains a three-team pile-up for the two wild-card spots, though. The Cardinals, San Francisco Giants and New York Mets are all within a game-and-a-half of each other.
They were down to their last strike at the time, but Watson elevated a sinker and Carpenter hit it out to center field. Manager Mike Matheny had planned on giving Carpenter the day off after watching how frustrated he appeared going 1-for-5 with a double in Monday's game. Carpenter was leading the National League with a .988 OPS before he strained a right oblique muscle on July 6. Molina called Carpenter the best hitter on the team.
Since he came back on Aug. 5, Carpenter was batting .217 with a .670 OPS. Matheny described Carpenter's funk as a "hard time finding his rhythm." Carpenter elaborated.
"I'm not in pain. It's just a hard feeling to describe. When you come back from an injury, there's an awareness there and that's just something you deal with," he said. "I probably won't be over that until next season. It's just part of it, but tonight was a good step forward in where I'm hoping to end up."
Matheny predicted the Cardinals would have more power this season in spring training, despite scant evidence at the time. Yet even he said he was speechless after the Cardinals hit three off Watson in the ninth inning to pull it out. All told, they hit five home runs, including a 437-foot blast from Matt Adams that hopped once and rolled into the Allegheny River. If not for the river, it might, by now, have reached Adams' hometown of Phillipsburg, Pennsylvania, about a two-hour drive away.
"What'd we hit tonight, five?" Matheny asked. "Wow. It's impressive. Once again, it just shows the talent level of the guys we have, taking good at-bats and not stopping."
It's a good thing for them, because the Cardinals first had to blow a five-run lead to heighten the drama.
After a dominant first inning for rookie Luke Weaver, the Pirates started hitting him hard by the second. At first, they were line-outs. The ensuing two innings saw more hard hits, not to mention a couple of runs, so manager Matheny decided to go to his bullpen early, pulling Weaver after 83 pitches and four innings.
In the process, he elected to double switch out Adams and leave Brandon Moss, who was in an 0-for-20 slump, in the game. Matheny defended the double switch by saying he was intent on getting two innings out of Bowman. The decision, though, would have painful consequences later. Thanks again to the home runs, it was a temporary pain.
The Cardinals' bullpen, like that of a lot of teams' at this time of year, is tired. Before this season, rookie Matt Bowman's career high for appearances was 28. Tuesday was his 50th game for the Cardinals.
He came in to start the fifth and could have been out of his inning after three batters, but he threw away a double-play ball, fueling a four-run Pittsburgh rally. An even easier double play opportunity squirted out of first baseman Moss' glove. The two errors undid the Cardinals, but they don't erase the fact the Pirates hit Bowman hard. On Aug. 2, right about the time Matheny started using him to protect slim leads, Bowman had a 2.96 ERA. In his 12 innings since, he has allowed 18 hits, seven walks and 14 runs. The workload appears to be catching up with him.
To tie the National League record for consecutive games with a home run, the Cardinals waited only five batters. Molina sliced his grand slam to right field off Ryan Vogelsong.