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Cardinals drop back-and-forth opener in Pittsburgh

Two-strike hits sting Wacha; Martinez gives up go-ahead home run

PITTSBURGH -- In a ballpark that has swallowed the Cardinals' power in recent years, St. Louis twice found a way to elevate go-ahead homers out of PNC Park in Friday night's series opener.

Problem was, the Pirates did one better.

Neil Walker's three-run blast off Carlos Martinez in the seventh shredded a lead provided by homers from Allen Craig and Jhonny Peralta and sunk the Cardinals, 6-4, in front of 33,696 fans. A night hyped as Michael Wacha's first return visit to Pittsburgh since dazzling in his postseason debut ended as an opportunity wasted in the Cardinals' attempts to run off a fourth win in five games.

That would have matched the team's best five-game stretch of the season. Instead, St. Louis fell to 3-4 on a road trip that has a pair of weekend games remaining. Positive momentum has been tough to sustain recently for the Cardinals, who have hovered a game away from .500 since April 27.

Wacha's assessment of his five-inning start -- "I have to do a better job of putting guys away and making a better pitch whenever I'm ahead in the count" -- just as well covered Martinez's travails.

Martinez inherited a one-run lead, the advantage provided by Peralta's solo homer off reliever Jeanmar Gomez in the seventh. By that point, Craig's three-run homer three innings earlier had been erased.

But trouble was immediate, as the Pirates opened with consecutive singles. After a sacrifice bunt, Martinez matched up with the switch-hitting Walker, who had a better average (.409) but only one home run this season batting from the left side.

Walker doubled that home run total by lining a flat 2-2 breaking ball into the right-field stands.

"My approach with Martinez was the same it had been with Wacha -- shorten up, not try to do too much," said Walker, who had a three-hit game. "With Wacha, I got into a couple of good hitting counts and got pitches to handle. In the seventh, that was somewhat unexpected. I got two sliders. I fouled off the first at 2-1, and then he left one up a little more and I was able to do more with it."

Martinez, now with two blown saves in his last three outings, went to the sliders after opening the at-bats with three straight fastballs.

"You can't just go out there after any of these guys and keep firing the same pitch," manager Mike Matheny said. "You have to make pitches. He knows when he's using one of the secondary pitches is to get back to a pitch that you want to get him out with. … A well-executed offspeed pitch after you do look overmatched on a fastball and you're cheating. Ball is out of the zone, it's a different story."

Home runs have stung the Cardinals repeatedly at PNC Park, where, since the start of 2012, the Pirates have hit 15 off St. Louis pitching. The Cardinals, in contrast, had connected for just five over that same period until adding two to the total on Friday.

Unplugged from the lineup on Wednesday after Matheny deemed him "not right" at the plate, Craig returned Friday and erased Pittsburgh's two-run lead with a three-run, fourth-inning blast. The homer, Craig's fourth of the season, came off lefty Francisco Liriano, against whom he was 1-for-13 with seven strikeouts.

"I was trying to go down and in and missed my spot, and it changed the whole game," Liriano said. "I was missing my spot a lot, getting behind the count a lot."

Craig hadn't been much better against anyone recently, lugging a 2-for-21 skid into that fourth-inning at-bat. He also singled in his final at-bat of the night.

"He's not that far off," Matheny said. "He's not been that far off. It's just a matter of having a few things go his way. … It was a great swing [off Liriano]. And there's not a reason why we're not going to see the Allen Craig that we've seen for the last few years. Once again, everything looks right. It's just a matter of getting positive momentum for him."

After the Pirates evened the game with consecutive one-out hits in the fifth, Peralta connected for his team-best eighth home run. By that point, both Wacha and Liriano had been pulled from the game, which included a 25-minute rain delay in the fourth. Each lasted five innings.

Wacha, who allowed one hit in 7 1/3 innings in his 2013 postseason start at PNC Park, had a rough start to his night, beginning with a leadoff liner from Jose Tabata that ricocheted off his right leg and caught his left shin. That earned Wacha a visit from Matheny and the assistant trainer, though Wacha insisted afterward that the bruise had "zero effect on the way I was pitching out there."

That hit came on a two-strike pitch, as did the one by Ike Davis with the bases loaded and two outs later in the 29-pitch first. Davis' ground-rule double scored two, one pitch after the Cardinals thought they had the first baseman struck out.

"That was a big pitch there that we didn't get called on Davis," Matheny said. "It looked like a strikeout. It wasn't a blatant strike, but something could have been called."

"I went back and checked and it's definitely off the plate," Wacha said, unwilling to deflect blame. "I just have to execute another pitch. I left a changeup up; he put a good swing on it."

Wacha navigated around other trouble -- as well as the delay -- before the Pirates struck for a game-tying run in the fifth. Five of the seven hits Wacha allowed came with two strikes.

"You get hitters to two strikes and you want them to have a little tougher time than that," Matheny said. "Typically, he's the guy who can get the swing and miss. It comes a little easier sometimes than others. Tonight, he just had trouble putting them away."

Wacha wasn't alone.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.
Read More: St. Louis Cardinals, Michael Wacha, Allen Craig