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04/26/06 6:10 PM ET

Bucs come back, then fall to Cards

Hernandez's homer ties game in top of the ninth inning

ST. LOUIS -- The Pirates played one of their most inspired games of the season against one of the best teams in the National League on Wednesday afternoon at Busch Stadium.

And, still, it wasn't quite enough.

The Pirates' 4-3 loss to the Cardinals had all the elements that had been missing during much of their worst start out of the gates since 1957. The quality start was there, as was the clutch hitting. The win, however, remained as elusive as ever for the 5-18 Bucs.

After trailing throughout much of the afternoon, the Pirates got the big hit they've been craving all year when Jose Hernandez drilled a dramatic home run off Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen (1-2) with two outs in the ninth inning.

"I hit it good," said Hernandez, who is 7-for-18 lifetime against Isringhausen. "That was good for us to tie the game in the ninth inning against their stopper and get a chance to come back and get the win. [But] it wasn't like that."

Unfortunately for the Pirates, it wasn't.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Cardinals put two runners on base against veteran right-hander Roberto Hernandez. That brought all-world slugger Albert Pujols to the plate with one out and the game on the line.

Pirates manager Jim Tracy had instructed starter Zach Duke to intentionally walk Pujols twice earlier in the game. The Bucs skipper did not believe walking Pujols was an option this time around. Tracy didn't want to have to move his infielders and outfielders in with one out and Juan Encarnacion set to bat next, particularly when he knew the Cardinals still had the dangerous Jim Edmonds available off the bench as a pinch-hitter.

"If you walk him intentionally, you've got fielders 100 feet away from home plate with Juan Encarnacion up. You can't do it that way," said Tracy.

"There are all kinds of doors open. If you walk [Pujols] there, they've got Edmonds sitting over there -- there's any number of things [Cardinals manager Tony La Russa] can do."

Hernandez appeared to be up for the challenge of facing the best hitter in the game. He blew a 97 mph fastball by Pujols, then got a called second strike from home plate umpire Jerry Meals on a nasty pitch at the knees. Pujols didn't swing at the third pitch, and the sellout crowd of 38,728 groaned, thinking their hero had gone down looking at a called third strike.

Meals, however, determined the pitch to be a ball, much to the dismay of Hernandez and the rest of the Pirates.

"I threw the first three pitchers where I wanted to. [Meals] called the second strike, but he wouldn't call the third one," Hernandez said. "I guess if you don't swing 0-2, it's not a strike."

"I'm certainly wondering about the one two-strike pitch that got called a ball," said Tracy. "I'm really wondering about that one."

Pujols' take on the possible third strike: "I don't know. That's not my job. My job is to be a first baseman and help my team out to win. If I was an umpire, then I would tell you so, but I don't know. Maybe the pitch was good, but he didn't call it. I don't have anything to say about that."

"To lose it that way is bitter and it's tough. I'd rather lose it where you make the mistakes and there's no second guessing."
-- Pirates reliever Roberto Hernandez

The next pitch was in the dirt. And after Pujols fouled off an inside pitch, he ripped a Hernandez offering down the third-base line for the game-winner.

"I was trying to go down and away, and I got it up," said Hernandez (0-1).

The loss, Pittsburgh's seventh straight, was as tough as any in what has already been a trying season.

"To lose it that way is bitter and it's tough," said Hernandez. "I'd rather lose it where you make the mistakes and there's no second guessing."

Duke, who has been far and away Pittsburgh's most consistent starter, struggled with his command throughout the afternoon. Of his 103 pitches, 52 went for strikes. However, Duke managed to keep his team in the game by limiting the powerful Cards offense to three runs on eight hits and five walks -- three intentional -- in six innings.

"It was kind of a struggle," said Duke. "It's hard to pitch to a lineup like that when you are behind in the count. But I was able to make some key pitches in some key situations. I just wish we could have been able to come out on top."

For Duke, it was his fourth quality start in five outings.

"He is a big-time Major Leaguer," said Tracy. "He knows how to pitch. He knows how to deal with adversity. He knows how to put innings down, as was evidenced today. That's Zach Duke. ... He's a tremendous pitcher, and he's going to be a good pitcher in this league for a long, long time. He did a great job today."

Prior to Hernandez's dramatic home run in the ninth inning, the Pirates' offense once again struggled to put runs on the board. Craig Wilson's sixth homer of the season, a two-run shot in the fourth inning, accounted for both Pirates runs against Cardinals starter Mark Mulder. The loss marked the 10th time in 11 games the Bucs were held to three runs or fewer.

Mulder, aided by four double plays, held the Bucs to two runs on five hits and five walks in 7 2/3 innings and was in line to notch his 100th career win.

"Offensively, with the exception of the couple of [home runs], we hit a single here and a single there," said Tracy. "Mulder wiped us out with four double plays. That's been a huge Achilles heel for us. When we get a man on with no outs or one out, we've been unable to get the add-on hit."

The Pirates dropped each of their six games on the road trip and fell to 1-12 on the road this season. Following an off-day Thursday, the Bucs will return to PNC Park for a three-game series against the Phillies, beginning Friday night.

Ed Eagle is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.