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Bucs turn to 'pen early again, slip in Central

Pirates starters have logged 9 1/3 total innings in last 3 games
MLB.com @adamdberry

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates upgraded their pitching staff at the non-waiver Trade Deadline by acquiring a top-of-the-rotation starter, Chris Archer, and another closer, Keone Kela, for the back end of their bullpen. But a series of short starts left them vulnerable on Saturday night, and the Cardinals took advantage.

After right-hander Ivan Nova gave up four runs in four innings, rookie Alex McRae entered a tie game in the fifth and allowed three runs in the Pirates' 8-4 loss to the Cardinals at PNC Park. The Bucs are now 7 1/2 games behind the National League Central-leading Cubs and four games out of the second NL Wild Card spot.

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PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates upgraded their pitching staff at the non-waiver Trade Deadline by acquiring a top-of-the-rotation starter, Chris Archer, and another closer, Keone Kela, for the back end of their bullpen. But a series of short starts left them vulnerable on Saturday night, and the Cardinals took advantage.

After right-hander Ivan Nova gave up four runs in four innings, rookie Alex McRae entered a tie game in the fifth and allowed three runs in the Pirates' 8-4 loss to the Cardinals at PNC Park. The Bucs are now 7 1/2 games behind the National League Central-leading Cubs and four games out of the second NL Wild Card spot.

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"I think everybody is proud of how we've been playing -- grinding out at-bats, grinding pitchers out," said Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong, who went 3-for-5. "As you can see, the Pirates are getting put in tough situations because we keep pushing their pitchers out in the fourth, fifth innings. That's always a plus for us."

Over the last three games, Pittsburgh's rotation has pitched only 9 1/3 innings: one by Nick Kingham on Wednesday, 4 1/3 by Archer on Friday and four by Nova on Saturday. The Cardinals wore down Nova, piling up eight hits and three walks while making him throw 92 pitches to record 12 outs.

Video: STL@PIT: Archer on Pirates debut, fans at PNC Park

"It wasn't my best day today," Nova said.

His abbreviated outing put manager Clint Hurdle in a bind when Adam Frazier tied the game, 4-4, in the fourth inning with a two-run double to left field. The Pirates had to cover five innings, and they had to do it without right-hander Edgar Santana after he threw 35 pitches in Friday's 7-6 victory.

Pittsburgh has four other high-leverage relievers, but they also pitched on Friday, and taking the mound on Saturday likely would have made them unavailable for Sunday's series finale. Hurdle could have turned to Richard Rodriguez in a tie game, though he would have wound up using McRae or Dovydas Neverauskas anyway if the Cardinals had regained the lead.

"You're trying to find length when you can, use guys periodically so you keep them fresh, keep them effective. You gamble when it's a tie game," Hurdle said. "We take a lead right there [in the fourth], there's a good opportunity Rodriguez does get into the game. But we didn't have a lead."

So Hurdle handed the ball to McRae, part of a new-look front end of the bullpen. Out went Tyler Glasnow (traded in the Archer deal) and Steven Brault (optioned to Triple-A) along with Michael Feliz (also demoted), among others who have struggled to lock down a permanent bullpen role. In came McRae and Neverauskas.

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"Your long men are going to pitch at some time. The bridge dynamic is a little different now than it was when we had Brault and Glasnow," Hurdle said. "McRae's here for a reason."

McRae immediately served up back-to-back doubles to Jose Martinez and Jedd Gyorko, giving the Cardinals a lead they wouldn't relinquish. He then allowed a single to Wong, and Harrison Bader hit a run-scoring groundout that made it 6-4.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals' bullpen shut down the Pirates' lineup after Pittsburgh's three-run fourth. The Bucs managed only one hit and a walk, both in the eighth, in the final five innings against right-handers Dakota Hudson, Mike Mayers and Bud Norris.

McRae provided length for Pittsburgh's bullpen, working into the eighth inning and giving the Bucs' back-end quintet a night off. Neverauskas retired the first four batters he faced before giving up a two-out homer to Matt Carpenter in the ninth inning.

"We'll continue to find ways to do it. We'll find the guys that are capable of doing it," Hurdle said. "Better off getting a lead and getting to the other side of the bullpen."

SOUND SMART
The Pirates had won 14 straight games when scoring the first run, as they did in Saturday night's defeat. David Freese connected on a 3-1 fastball from Austin Gomber and belted it into the right-field seats to lead off the second inning, giving the Bucs a 1-0 lead.

Video: STL@PIT: Freese hits opposite-field solo homer in 2nd

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
After Wong doubled with one out in the second inning, Bader hit a line-drive single to right field. Gregory Polanco fired the ball to catcher Elias Diaz, who quickly threw to shortstop Jordy Mercer to catch Bader in a rundown. When Wong broke for home, Mercer delivered the ball back to Diaz, who tagged out Wong at the plate.

Video: STL@PIT: Mercer nabs Wong at home on heads-up play

HE SAID IT
"I've got too much energy to be standing up all the time. … I like to go out to the mound a lot and I like to talk a lot, especially with hitters, umpires. And I have no one to talk [to] because now, with the shift and everybody's over there, you cannot talk to anyone. So I miss my gear and my squatting thing. But this is a game, and anything that I can do to be in a lineup, I will."-- Francisco Cervelli, on playing first base for the first time since April 20, 2016

Video: STL@PIT: Cervelli flashes skills at first base in 5th

UP NEXT
Right-hander Trevor Williams will put his 17-inning scoreless streak on the line as the Pirates wrap up their three-game series against the Cardinals at 1:35 p.m. ET on Sunday at PNC Park. Williams last allowed a run on July 6. Right-hander Jack Flaherty will start for St. Louis.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Alex McRae, Dovydas Neverauskas, Ivan Nova