Bucs' comeback bid falls just short
Michaels stranded at second after three-run double in ninth
ST. LOUIS -- Though the Pirates' 5-4 loss to St. Louis on Friday night dropped them into the bottom of the division standings, don't think that they are going unnoticed.
"It got very scary there at the end," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said afterward.
And no, La Russa wasn't commenting on the severe thunderstorms and piercing lightning bolts that were looming as the 10 p.m. CT hour neared at Busch Stadium.
"The Pirates have done a great job of playing to the finish," La Russa continued. "I've watched a lot of their games and they do a really good job of playing the whole game."
That season-long trend was on display Friday, when a scrappy three-run rally in the top of the ninth turned a game that seemed well in the books into yet another spirited come-from-behind attempt by a Bucs team that has shown time and time again that it intends to play until that 27th out.
"These guys play hard," said Jason Michaels, now a three-week member of the club. "They get after it, and it's fun to be part of that type of a team. It's a good group of guys here."
It was Michaels who hushed what remained of the 42,791 fans on hand, when his two-out, three-run double in the ninth turned a 5-1 game into a one-run affair.
With Jose Bautista on first and two outs in the ninth, infielder Chris Gomez reached after being hit by a Randy Flores pitch. A single from Freddy Sanchez followed, bringing the pinch-hitting Michaels to the plate.
His swing on a 1-1 slider sent the pitch slicing up and toward the left-field wall.
"When he first hit it, you always think [there's an] opportunity," said Bucs manager John Russell, alluding to the possibility of a game-tying grand slam.
"I thought it was going to go foul," Michaels said. "Then I was like, 'He's going to catch it.'"
Neither would prove to be true, as the ball dropped just fair and just outside the reach of Cardinals left fielder Ryan Ludwick.
Nate McLouth, who already had a solo homer to his name on the night, then stepped up as the potential go-ahead run. But all hope of making Game 54 of the season the team's 15th come-from-behind-win was exhausted with his soft groundout.
"[Michaels' hit] put us within one and we had the right guy at the plate," Russell said. "We just couldn't finish it off. Guys battled all the way to the end. Unfortunately, we fell short."
You could say the loss stung a little more because of the fact that the Pirates squandered a strong starting pitching performance, something that they have been craving on a consistent basis.
Or you could say it didn't hurt quite as badly as some of the other losses since the team knows that, more often than not, a quality start will translate into a win, and they'll finish those comebacks.
"If we do that, I think we've got a very good chance to win," Russell said.
In a stretch where consistent starting pitching has been elusive, Zach Duke responded by allowing just five hits and two earned runs in six innings of work.
The performance was a step in the right direction for Duke, who lasted just 63 pitches his last time out.
But with the loss, he dropped to 2-4 on the season and remains winless on the road since May 27, 2007.
"I'm glad I kept us in the game. But at the same time, I didn't really pitch well enough to win it because if I had, I would have won," he said. "What it takes to win depends on the game, and I wasn't a winning pitcher today."
He let a quick 1-0 lead slip away when, three batters into the bottom half of the first, Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols hit the RBI century mark in his career against the Pirates with a two-run homer. Though Pujols' historic success against Pirates pitching is matched by few, surprisingly, that marked his first homer and RBIs off Duke.
St. Louis pushed across one more the following inning to run its lead to two. After allowing a leadoff single, Duke charged in to field a bunt from left fielder Brian Barton. Pirates first baseman Adam LaRoche also came charging in, leaving no one at first when Duke pivoted and turned to throw.
He tried to stop his motion to give second baseman Freddy Sanchez time to cover, but the ball came out anyways and trickled down the right-field line. Opposing starter Todd Wellemeyer, who allowed just one run in seven innings, would make the error costly when he followed with a sacrifice fly.
What proved to be just as pivotal, however, were the two runs the Cardinals tacked on against Tyler Yates in the eighth. Jason Bay's decision to make a diving attempt on what would have been a leadoff single translated into a Rick Ankiel triple. A pair of RBI singles soon followed.
"You can't fault the effort. He's going for it," Russell said of Bay's diving try. "We'll take that any day. It was an aggressive play. He thought he had a chance to catch it -- you can't fault that."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.