PITTSBURGH -- The Cardinals still lead the Pirates in the National League Central standings. They still own a claim to the second NL Wild Card spot. They still flaunt the experience factor and hoist the 2011 World Series championship banner
But St. Louis' inability to steal a series win in Pittsburgh this week means the Cardinals will have to spend at least the immediate future with a pesky Pirates club lurking right behind.
St. Louis went quietly in front of 19,398 at PNC Park on Wednesday, losing, 5-0, to a Pirates team that now sits one game behind the Cardinals, who drop to 3-3 on this current road trip. The club is on to Washington D.C., next, where the task gets no easier. Waiting there is a 78-win Nationals club.
The Cardinals will arrive also looking to wake up their slumbering offense.
"[It's] very frustrating," manager Mike Matheny said of the offense's shutdown. "We've had quite a bit of this. It's feast or famine, and it's hard to figure out what we need to do to get it going. We know it will, but nights like this, it's hard to see that."
It has been all famine lately, with the Cardinals wrapping up the series without a run in their final 21 innings. After running over the Cardinals in a nine-run win on Tuesday, the Pirates became just the second club to shut out St. Louis in consecutive games this season. The Mets did so back on the first two days of June.
"You go against that offense and put 18 zeros on the board, I couldn't be any prouder of them," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "The two starts we got [were] just what we needed. The bullpen action followed through."
Adding to the perplexity of watching one of the league's best offenses go silent is who tamed them. Tuesday's starter, James McDonald, and Wednesday's winner, Wandy Rodriguez, have a combined five wins since the All-Star break. Four of those wins have come against the Cardinals, who have dropped consecutive series to the Bucs this month.
"You have to give credit to the other team," Matheny said. "But we've said this several times: This offense shouldn't give people too much credit because we should be able to put a lot of runs up."
The Cardinals combined for only 10 hits in these back-to-back losses, with five of those -- all singles -- coming Wednesday. Rodriguez gave up three in his six-inning start. He also issued three walks -- all to Jon Jay -- but never allowed a runner to reach third.
Stinging the Cardinals again was Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez, whose three-run homer off starter Joe Kelly was the dagger.
The blast came with two outs in the third after Kelly pitched carefully around cleanup hitter Garrett Jones. Jones, who had doubled home the Pirates' first-inning run, drew a four-pitch walk.
The intention was to then pitch Alvarez similarly -- see if he would chase pitches outside the zone, and if he didn't, surrender the walk and take the matchup with the right-handed hitting Josh Harrison.
"We were trying to kind of pitch around [Alvarez]," catcher Tony Cruz said. "The way he's been swinging against us, I don't know if he has a different approach or what. He's been hot the last couple of days, and we've left some balls up and over the middle and he's made us pay."
Kelly's 3-1 pitch fell in that category. The curveball sat over the middle of the plate for Alvarez to crush.
It was Alvarez's seventh home run in 15 games against St. Louis this year. His 23 RBIs are the most by one player against the Cardinals in a season since 1977, when Philadelphia's Greg Luzinski had 28.
"I let the hottest hitter beat me," Kelly said. "I just made a bad pitch, and he made us pay. Usually, you don't want the best guy in the lineup to beat you, but I just happened to throw a bad pitch to him."
Harrison, who knocked Yadier Molina out of Tuesday's game, later drove home a fifth run off Kelly, who was making his return to the rotation after a two-week move to the bullpen.
All five runs Kelly allowed scored with two outs. He had not allowed five earned runs in any of his previous 12 Major League starts. The Pirates tagged him for eight hits and three walks.
Moved back into a starting role due to Lance Lynn's struggles, Kelly needed 90 pitches to get through five innings. Matheny, when asked if Kelly would remain in the rotation, did not suggest otherwise.
"He did a pretty good job," Matheny said. "I don't want these guys walking on egg shells every time they go out there for a start, either. That's not right."
"I think he pitched better than his line showed," added Cruz. "He made one mistake."
The loss leaves the Cardinals 7-8 against the Pirates this season, making this the Cardinals' first losing season series against the Bucs since going 7-10 in 2008. It could also have playoff implications. If the two clubs were to tie for the first Wild Card spot, home-field advantage during the one-game Wild Card playoff would go Pittsburgh by virtue of the head-to-head record.
Such a scenario seems unlikely, but so, too, did the prospect of the Cardinals' offense going into a drought against a starting staff lugging a 4.50 second-half ERA.
"It's a team that definitely believes in themselves," Matheny said of the Pirates. "They believe in each other, and they're going to fight you right to the end. I admire that. And that's something that I believe we should all bring to the table."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.