PITTSBURGH -- The Spring Training sensation is for real, and so too are the Pirates. Right-hander Juan Nicasio fired six strong innings and the Bucs wrapped up a season-opening three-game sweep with a 5-1 win over the Cardinals on Wednesday night at PNC Park.
Nicasio, who earned a spot in the Pirates' rotation after an unexpectedly dominant spring, held the Cards to two hits and struck out seven in his Pittsburgh debut. Formerly a struggling starter with the Rockies and a middling reliever for the Dodgers, Nicasio blew past St. Louis' lineup with the same high-90 mph fastball and wipeout slider that propelled him through the spring.
"We wanted to give him the opportunity to get out there and continue to pitch," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "I thought he was very aggressive. … He was very effective."
Right-hander Mike Leake, making his Cardinals debut, battled through a 42-pitch first inning and wound up allowing four runs on seven hits and three walks over 4 1/3 innings. He walked in a run in the first then served up a Little League homer to John Jaso and a two-run double to Francisco Cervelli in the fifth.
"It was right over the middle," Leake said of the fateful pitch to Cervelli. " I'd say that was kind of the icer."
Led by their latest successful reclamation project, the Pirates finished off their first three-game sweep of the Cardinals since September 2008. It's the first time since 2007 the Bucs have opened a season with three straight wins -- the same year the Cardinals last lost three straight to begin the season.
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"They got big hits in big situations," said Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter. "They pitched better than us. And they played better defense overall. … It's three games. It wasn't the start we had hoped for, but it is what it is. Now we have to move past it and make some adjustments."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Easy as Juan, two, three: Nicasio enjoyed a breakthrough spring, striking out 24 batters in 15 scoreless innings, but such performances are often met with skepticism. Did it mean anything? Could he carry that success into the regular season? Nicasio immediately showed his stuff, striking out the first two batters he faced in a perfect first inning.
"I'm feeling really good," Nicasio said. "I'm not thinking too much."
Labor intensive: Leake, who was so efficient and effective this spring, extended himself during a 42-pitch first inning. He navigated through the inning with only one run allowed but was limited in how deep he could pitch into his Cardinals debut because of the early workload. In contrast, Leake followed that with three scoreless innings on 39 pitches.
"Just misses," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Leake's start. "He's a guy, from what we saw in spring, he's just so dialed in. Everything was on the corners and moving. For whatever reason, once you head north, you have adjustments you have to make. Balls were just off, and it put him in tough counts, and tough counts put you in the big part of the plate."
Leadoff speed? The Pirates slotted Jaso atop the order for his on-base percentage, not his speed. But Jaso wheeled around the bases in a hurry in the fifth inning, banging a triple off the right-field Clemente Wall and hustling to third base. Second baseman Kolten Wong sailed a throw into the camera well by the Pirates' dugout, and Jaso trotted home to complete the Little League "homer.''
"I was thinking homer out of the chute," Jaso said, laughing.
Hazelbaker homers: A day after collecting his first Major League hit, Jeremy Hazelbaker drew his first Major League start on Wednesday. He made the most of it, too, connecting for a solo homer to get the Cardinals on the scoreboard in the sixth inning. Hazelbaker led the team in home runs this spring.
"He takes a really good AB, a competitive at-bat," Carpenter said of Hazelbaker. "He's a tough out. The last couple days you have seen that pay off."
"I don't think we'll ever surprise ourselves when we play well. We're past that point. We expect to play well." -- Hurdle, on the season-opening sweep
"It's great to go in there. My job is to keep it right where it is. That's my role, and today I was able to do that. I'm happy about that." -- Cardinals Rule 5 reliever Matt Bowman, on throwing two scoreless innings in his Major League debut.
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SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
The Pirates have tripled in each of their first three games this season. The last time that happened? The year was 1910, when Honus Wagner was still manning shortstop in Pittsburgh.
With his 1,381st career start on Thursday, Yadier Molina passed Ted Simmons to become the Cardinals' all-time leader in starts by a catcher.
The Pirates have won nine of their last 12 games against the Cardinals at PNC Park.
This was Leake's first loss to the Pirates since May 8, 2012. In 17 starts against Pittsburgh between then and Wednesday, Leake was 7-0 with a 3.08 ERA.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
The Pirates lost their challenge in the fourth inning when they tried to get a caught-stealing call on Gregory Polanco overturned. Instead, a one-minute, 45-second review of the call confirmed the ruling.
Crew chief Jerry Layne initiated another instant replay review in the eighth inning after Hazelbaker had been ruled out on a bang-bang play at first. What had been ruled as an inning-ending double play was eventually overturned, and Hazelbaker was awarded the base. The Cardinals could not turn the second chance into a run.
Cardinals: After an off-day on Thursday, the Cardinals will return to the field on Friday to open a three-game series against the Braves at 6:35 p.m. CT. Barring an October visit, this series will mark the Cardinals' final time playing at Turner Field, where they are 24-43 all-time. Lefty Jaime Garcia will make his season debut against Atlanta's Matt Wisler.
Pirates: After taking Thursday off, the Pirates will travel to Cincinnati on Friday to begin a three-game series against the Reds at Great American Ball Park. Opening Day starter Francisco Liriano will pitch the opener at 7:10 p.m. ET against Reds righty Alfredo Simon.
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