PITTSBURGH — A flip to second base gone awry threatened to sap the St. Louis Cardinals of the momentum that has carried them from the doldrums of August to the middle of the playoff race in September.
No matter. A series of small moves executed perfectly allowed the Cardinals to rally against one of the best closers in the game.
Randal Grichuk scored after an error by Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer, capping a frantic ninth-rally that lifted surging St. Louis over Pittsburgh 4-3 on Friday night. The wild-card chasing Cardinals won their fourth straight, despite trailing by a run entering the ninth against Felipe Rivero, who came in having blown just one save all season.
Make it two.
Stephen Piscotty led off with a double to right, and Jedd Gyorko followed with a pinch-hit RBI single. After Tommy Pham's single, Grichuk pinch-ran for Gyorko at third, and he scored when Mercer misplayed Dexter Fowler's sharp groundball. Pham was running on the pitch, meaning Mercer had no time to turn an inning-ending double play. When the ball skittered out of his grasp, any chance to fire home instead was gone, too.
St. Louis remained 1½ games behind Colorado for the second wild-card spot in the National League. The Cardinals arrived after taking three straight against Cincinnati, a resounding bounce back after getting swept last weekend by the Chicago Cubs.
"It just seems this team never gives up and we're always in it," said Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha, who worked five innings before giving way to the bullpen. "We've been playing some hard games on this road trip and that's a tough guy to take it off of with Rivero, and guys just put up some great at-bats in the last inning, and we were able to get two across, which was very hard against him."
Rivero has worked only sporadically during Pittsburgh's slide but didn't blame the lengthy layoff for a shaky outing.
"Everything that happens in baseball, today they got it," Rivero said after just his third appearance in the last 11 days. "I've got to come back tomorrow and try to do the same that I've been doing."
The Pirates took a 3-2 lead in the seventh when Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong flipped a potential double-play grounder high over the head of second baseman Kolten Wong and into right field, allowing Max Moroff to score from second.
St. Louis manager Mike Matheny called the misplaced lob "a blip." DeJong admitted he exhaled while watching his teammates claw back in the ninth.
"We're starting to play really well right now at crunch time," DeJong said. "This game was a good win. We came from behind. It was kind of sloppy here and there, both sides really, but we got the win."
The victory pushed St. Louis to a season-best nine games over .500 (81-72). One more victory will guarantee the Cardinals their 10th straight winning season.
Former Pirates reliever Juan Nicasio (4-5) got the win after working the eighth and ninth. Fowler and Piscotty had two hits each.
David Freese had an RBI double for the Pirates, who have dropped eight of nine.
St. Louis tagged struggling starter Ivan Nova for a run in each of the first two innings, the run in the second coming after Nova tried to get the lead runner at third base on a grounder back to the mound but threw the ball into left field.
Nova steadied himself after that, lasting five innings while allowing two runs, one earned, with two strikeouts and a season-high four walks.
Wacha wobbled in the fourth, giving up a run-scoring double to Freese. Pittsburgh tied it 2-2 a batter later when Josh Bell slid under Yadier Molina's tag following a grounder to first.
Cardinals: First baseman Jose Martinez will go to St. Louis for testing on his aching left thumb. Martinez left in the bottom of the seventh after Matheny noticed Martinez shaking his left hand as the team warmed up defensively. Matt Carpenter moved from third base to first, with Alex Mejia taking over at third.
Cardinals: Lance Lynn (11-7, 3.09 ERA) looks for just his second win in the last six weeks on Saturday. Lynn is 7-6 with a 4.50 ERA in 20 career starts against the Pirates.
Pirates: Gerrit Cole (11-11, 4.13) has received just five runs of support in his last five starts. Cole's 32nd start of the season will tie a career high set in 2015.