PITTSBURGH (AP) — Connor Joe learned the importance of beating the St. Louis Cardinals when the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted the now well-traveled outfielder nearly a decade ago.
The Cardinals have long been a measuring stick for the Pirates, one they’ve largely failed to meet for most of the last quarter century or more.
It’s June. It’s still really, really early. Yet there are signs Pittsburgh has closed the gap on a team that’s been more tormentor than a rival for a long, long time.
Joe’s two-run double highlighted a sixth-inning rally and the Pirates surged past St. Louis for a second time in less than 24 hours, edging the Cardinals 4-3 on Saturday for their fourth consecutive victory.
The teams split a four-game set at Busch Stadium in mid-April. Nearly two months later, the Pirates have taken two at PNC Park with the kind of scrappy, grinding approach they believe has to be their identity if they want to challenge for the NL Central sooner rather than later.
“It’s kind of ingrained in us that every time we step on the field we want to beat those guys, whether it’s us playing the State College Spikes (in the minor leagues) or whatever,” said Joe, who eventually bounced between four different teams before returning to Pittsburgh in the offseason. “So, I’m very aware of the rivalry. It’s good to play competitive baseball.”
Ke’Bryan Hayes, whose three-run homer Friday night helped the Pirates rally from a five-run deficit, tied it in fifth off Jordan Montgomery (2-7) with a blast into the left-field bleachers.
Joe put Pittsburgh in front with a lined shot to the wall in left an inning later and the Pirates bullpen held firm after an hour rain-delay ended starter Luis Ortiz’s day early. Dauri Moreta (3-1) struck out Willson Contreras with two on to end the top of the sixth. David Bednar worked the ninth for his 12th save.
“Whenever we’re playing our brand of baseball, I feel like we can compete with anyone,” Hayes said. “We showed flashes of it over the past few years. Obviously, we were super young (then). Getting that experience, facing certain guys in the bullpen, seeing certain starting pitchers, then really just getting more and more comfortable each year, I think that helps.”
Contreras hit his sixth homer of the season off Ortiz in the second inning. Nolan Gorman hit a two-run shot in the eighth to bring the Cardinals within one but St. Louis could not draw even.
The Cardinals have dropped four of five to sap some of the energy out of a May surge that helped them shake off a 10-24 start and get within shouting distance of the leaders in the NL Central.
“We have to find a way to win, especially these types of ballgames,” St. Louis manager Carlos Marmol said. “(Friday) you have to find a way to win. you can’t give that one up. Today, we have to play better.”
Pittsburgh’s bullpen has evolved from a question mark in the spring to a strength with summer approaching. The Pirates called up relievers Angel Perdomo and Yerry De Los Santos on Saturday and immediately put them to work, with the two covering three innings of scoreless relief shortly after arriving on a plane from Triple-A Indianapolis.
“Losing the starter because of the rain delay and they just continue to push through,” Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton said. “They just continued to go. They just fed off each other.”
A day after one of the biggest hits of his young career, Hayes followed up with a blast in the fifth that pulled Pittsburgh even and helped end Montgomery’s bid to win for the first time in nearly two months.
Montgomery remained winless since April 8 when things got away from him in the sixth. Pittsburgh’s rally began when 10-time Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado misplayed a groundball to Mark Mathias to start the inning.
Mathias’ hustle down the line started a sequence that ended with Joe lacing a ball to the wall and Carlos Santana following with an RBI single to give Pittsburgh just enough cushion to keep St. Louis winless Montgomery’s last 10 starts, with seven of the losses coming by one run.
“I think it will wear on anybody,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “At the end of the day we just have to find a way to win these ballgames. Is it wearing on him? I’m sure it is.”
The series wraps up Sunday with an 11:35 a.m. EDT matinee. Miles Mikolas (4-1, 3.75 ERA) against Rich Hill (4-5, 4.76).