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Alvarez's homer hands Pirates 19-inning victory

ST. LOUIS -- They're not going away. Throughout a long afternoon and early evening in Busch Stadium, the Pirates appeared countless times on the verge of reciting their exit line from serious postseason consideration.

That line is about the only thing they blew. So they are still around. Pedro Alvarez's 23rd home run in the 19th inning on Sunday started a three-run rally that gave the Bucs a 6-3 win over the Cardinals and a victory in the epic series between National League Central contenders.

Yes, 19th inning. The Jerry Meals Game of last July 26 is off the books.

"We definitely know how a 19-inning loss feels," said Andrew McCutchen, who iced this game with a two-run single in the 19th. "It was a battle all around, both sides came to play, and it was good to be able to get that win."

"We've been on the losing side of 19," Alvarez said. "It's deflating. To win such a long, well-played game ... it gives you a little burst of energy at the end of the day. A huge win; makes you feel good at the end of it."

Alvarez's one-out homer off Barret Browning made a winner of Wandy Rodriguez, who instead of starting Monday night in San Diego as scheduled had to become the Bucs' eighth pitcher in the 18th inning with his first relief appearance in six years.

On Oct. 1, 2006, Rodriguez appeared in relief for the Astros only as a tuneup for a postseason run into the World Series. Maybe he was doing the same thing Sunday. On a day like this, everything seemed possible.

This was the Pirates' longest road win since the "We Are Family" club posted a 4-3 win in 19 innings at San Diego on Aug. 25, 1979.

"We've already had a few seminal moments. Maybe this will turn into another," said manager Clint Hurdle. "It all depends on how we take the field [Monday against the Padres].

"But a game like this ... it would've felt different walking out of here with a loss. But we don't have to deal with it."

The Pirates spent the marathon getting off the floor, needing to do so for the last time after having taken a 3-2 lead in the top of the 17th on Garrett Jones' infield single with the bases loaded and two outs.

James McDonald, only the latest Pirates player to go above and beyond, had triggered that 17th-inning rally with a pinch-hit single off Joe Kelly. With two outs, a wild pitch gave McDonald second and led to an intentional walk of Alvarez. Next, Clint Barmes was hit by a pitch to load the bases, leading to left-hander Marc Rzepczynski's entrance to face Jones.

The Cardinals stormed back against Juan Cruz to re-tie it at 3 in the bottom of the 17th, on Tony Cruz's sacrifice fly.

Juan Cruz had been listed as "unavailable" by Pirates manager Clint Hurdle prior to the game. But there was no such thing as "unavailable" by the 17th of a game that featured uncommon contributions by several players.

"Like I'm always telling [general manager] Neal Huntington, 'I'll do everything I can to win in nine. After that, all bets are off'," Hurdle said.

Neil Walker pinch-hit, dislocated finger be darned. Jordy Mercer pinch-hit and stayed in to play second and bat several more times, the heck with the bruised forearm. Banished starter Kevin Correia pitched two critical innings of relief. Chris Resop pitched a season-high three. As a last resort, Joel Hanrahan finally entered a tie game in the 14th. Next, Jared Hughes hung up two more zeros.

"It was nice to hold the score," Correia said. "It felt like I was pitching late in the game. But as it turned out, it was actually pretty early."

It was still tied when Correia departed it in the 11th, and Resop kept it that way through the 13th. Hanrahan drove in the only nail he had. Then it was the kid's turn.

In the one-run series for positioning for a National League Wild Card playoff spot, the Pirates were ultimately one inning better.

Sunday's game followed the Pirates' 2-1 victory on Friday and the Cardinals' 5-4 response Saturday.

The Pirates have also taken two-of-three the last time they were here, June 29-July 1. This is the first time the Bucs have won a pair of road series against the Cardinals since 1992.

Though the impression of their efforts had faded long before the end of the game, both starters Jeff Karstens of the Pirates and St. Louis' Jaime Garcia had pitched nobly to set the stage for the epic game.

For Karstens, who pitched two-hit ball for seven innings, the sense of deja vu was strongest. He had started the 19-inning game last July in Atlanta, when he essentially fulfilled his role the way he did Sunday.

"As a starter, all you try to do is that when you leave the game, your team is in position to win, or have a good chance to scratch itself back," Karstens said. "And that's what our whole staff has been doing all year."

Garcia, in his return start after being out for 2 1/2 months with a left-shoulder strain, went eight innings, allowing five hits and two runs while striking out a career-high 10 without a walk.

For five innings, the left-hander helped the Pirates find an unsatisfactory solution to their troubles hitting with men in scoring position -- not get any men there.

In the sixth, Garcia, played a huge part in getting them in that position -- he overran a dribbler by Clint Barmes that went for a leadoff infield single, then had the exact same problem with a Karstens sacrifice bunt that went for an error. Jose Tabata also laid down another sacrifice bunt, with the expected result: Josh Harrison's sacrifice fly scored Barmes and advanced Karstens to third, from where he scored the tying run as McCutchen beat out a roller to third for another infield single.

"Before I even got to the play, I was already trying to throw it -- instead of get there, catch it and throw it," Garcia said of the misplayed bunt. "I have to make that play, especially with the pitcher. It's an easy out. You have to take it. That's definitely something that shouldn't have happened"

A lot of things that happened in this game should not have. Eight Pirates pitchers, including some pitching at the point of exhaustion, held the National League's top offensive team to 11 hits across 19 innings.

The Cardinals' starting lineup included six hitting over .300. The Pirates lineup had five hitting under .240. Were this golf, the Bucs would've gotten a handicap.

Karstens' only handicap was the National League's top RBI man. He had the Cardinals hitless until Allen Craig led off the fourth with a single -- his 12th hit in 29 at-bats this season against Pittsburgh pitching -- and followed that by walking Matt Holliday. That set up a two-run double by Carlos Beltran for his 84th and 85th RBIs of the season.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.
Read More: Pittsburgh Pirates, Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Jeff Karstens