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Bucs finish stellar series vs. Cards with a loss

Morton, bullpen combine to allow 17 hits; Pirates' offense shut out

PITTSBURGH -- Manager Clint Hurdle may have been disappointed in the coda.

"My intention is to win every game," Hurdle said prior to Thursday's final act of a five-act showdown. "I'm still naive like that."

Full Game Coverage

PITTSBURGH -- Manager Clint Hurdle may have been disappointed in the coda.

"My intention is to win every game," Hurdle said prior to Thursday's final act of a five-act showdown. "I'm still naive like that."

Full Game Coverage

Yet it was hard for anyone in Pirates Nation to be down after the Bucs dropped the series finale to the Cardinals, even after they did so in ugly fashion, 13-0.

With Thursday night's attendance of 31,999, the series set a PNC Park record of 129,623, breaking a mark set from Aug. 15-18, 2008, in a series against the Mets.

Righty Charlie Morton had no answer for opponent Joe Kelly's pitching, nor for the hitting of Kelly's teammates. Morton was the opening target of a 17-hit attack that continued against the bullpen.

Hurdle's view of the big picture was revealed through his defensive response to postgame queries about the difficulties of Morton and of Jeanmar Gomez -- who became the third Pittsburgh reliever since 1933 to allow seven runs in one-third of an inning or less.

"We just won four out of five [over] the Cardinals," Hurdle said with a wide smile. "I think we lose sight of the fact that they're human beings. And this is the Major Leagues. ... We kept the cat in the bag for four days. And the cat got out tonight."

After scoring a total of seven runs in the first four games of the set, the Cards scored eight in the seventh inning alone on Thursday and are feeling a little bit better on their way out of town, their seven-game losing streak buried under an avalanche of hits.

"You don't want to accept lulls like this past week, but that's part of the game, and it's bound to happen to every team in the league," said Allen Craig, who contributed two hits and two RBIs to the balanced St. Louis attack. "It's what we're going through right now, but I think today was a good sign for our team. There was no panic. We brought a lot of energy, and when you look at what happened today, it's a good thing."

The Pirates felt even better watching them leave: The Cards exited without the National League Central lead with which they'd arrived. That's now in the Bucs' possession, by 1 1/2 games.

So this unusual series was a fabulous success for the Pirates, bringing them the division lead and the glare of a national spotlight in which they performed 80 percent nobly. The Jolly Roger has been firmly planted on the Major League landscape.

By the top of the third, the Cardinals had their biggest lead of the series, but the first three runs hardly were the product of their reputable offense, still the best and highest-scoring in the NL even after the four-game throttle by Pittsburgh pitching.

The Cards scored their first run on a wild pitch, their second on a hit batter with the bases loaded, the third on a double-play ball. Finally, Pete Kozma singled for a more legitimate run to cap a three-run third and make it 4-0.

"I could have gone about it a little bit better," said Morton, acknowledging that his erratic pitching may have been the biggest component of the Cardinals' early offense. "I'm not saying they wouldn't have scored without it, but … "

A victim of circumstance -- rare off-days by the Bucs' world-class bullpen, a zeroed-in opposing pitcher -- Morton, still only nine starts into his comeback from Tommy John surgery in June 2012, has on his record the two rare blowout losses by a Pittsburgh team that usually plays it close to the vest. On June 13 he lost to Matt Cain and the Giants, 10-0.

"Not enough first-pitch strikes," Hurdle said of the root of Morton's struggles. "Only eight hitters retired in three pitches or less, and from a sinkerball pitcher, you're looking for quicker contact. He's working to improve the consistency and the tempo and the timing of his delivery -- it got a little whacked tonight in the stretch. So there's room for improvement."

While all that was going on around Morton, Kelly was holding the Pirates hitless.

The Pirates finally broke through for three hits in the fifth -- but no runs, because Jose Tabata's leadoff single led to Jordy Mercer's double-play ball. That cleared the bases, letting Kelly give up a single to Morton and a double to Starling Marte without damage.

Those three were all the hits allowed by Kelly in six innings, his limit, as four walks and several other full counts nudged his pitch count to 102. He also fanned four.

"He pitched a very, very good ballgame," Hurdle said of Kelly, who made his first start against the Bucs and who had struggled against Pittsburgh in prior relief appearances (four runs in 3 1/3 innings). "Kelly has a big arm; he has a chance to be a really good pitcher."

Morton also went six, with 10 hits and five earned runs on his ledger. He issued one walk and fanned five.

Morton also had that hit, his first in 28 at-bats dating back to Sept. 20, 2011 -- a statistical oddity he felt a lot better about than tying for the league lead in hit batters.

That count reached 10 when Morton nicked Jon Jay in the fourth and David Freese in the fifth. In the 46th inning of his delayed season, Morton tied for the NL lead in hit batters with Julio Teheran (131 innings) and Ian Kennedy (124 innings).

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.


Pittsburgh Pirates, Charlie Morton