ST. LOUIS -- The Pirates spent most of July storming out of fourth place and gaining ground in the postseason race, capping the month with a pair of Trade Deadline additions. Four weeks ago, Pittsburgh stood a game-and-a-half ahead of the St. Louis in the National League Central standings.
But under newly minted manager Mike Shildt, the Cardinals have caught up -- and then some. Their climb continued Tuesday night at Busch Stadium with a 5-2 win over the Pirates. The Bucs are 8-16 this month, while the Cardinals lead the Majors with a 20-5 record.
The Cardinals own the first NL Wild Card spot, and they're only four games behind the division-leading Cubs. The Pirates' 19th loss in their last 30 games kept them 8 1/2 games out of a playoff spot with 30 left to play.
"They're playing the game well," manager Clint Hurdle said before the series opener. "They're catching the ball better. They're hitting the ball out of the ballpark. They're hitting doubles. They're scoring runs. And they're pitching. They've been as hot as any team in baseball for some time now."
They showed why on Tuesday night. Rookie Jack Flaherty pitched four perfect innings before yielding a run in the fifth, when Josh Bell doubled and scored on a single by Colin Moran, who was thrown out trying to reach second. In his fifth start of the season against Pittsburgh, the 22-year-old right-hander allowed four hits and didn't walk a batter while striking out five over seven innings.
Flaherty, a first-round Draft pick in 2014, has put together a 2.48 ERA against the Pirates this year.
"It's gotten better the more we've faced him," Hurdle said. "I think as this season has shown, his stuff has gotten better -- the consistency of it, the execution of pitches."
Pirates starter Ivan Nova, a tough-luck loser his last two times out, was done in early by a pair of two-run homers. Jose Martinez pulled an inside fastball -- a pitch so far in, it may have been closer to the batter's box than the strike zone -- out to left field in the first inning. Rookie outfielder Tyler O'Neill yanked another inside fastball 436 feet to left in the fourth, launching the 1-2 pitch over the Pirates' bullpen in left field.
"The command was not that sharp, like it was last time," Nova said. "I gave up two two-run homers -- not what you want."
Nova walked Jedd Gyorko, gave up an infield single to Harrison Bader and walked Flaherty to load the bases with two outs in the fourth. That brought an end to his night, as Hurdle emerged from the dugout and summoned left-hander Steven Brault to face slugging leadoff man Matt Carpenter.
"We need to get Carpenter out to stay in the game, and I just felt that Brault gave us a better shot of getting him out at that time based on what I'd seen that inning from Nova," Hurdle said. "It's hard taking out the big man."
Brault answered the call. The lefty retired Carpenter and went on to pitch 3 1/3 scoreless innings, keeping the Pirates within striking distance before the Cards put the game away.
Since a brief stint in Triple-A Indianapolis earlier this month, Brault has put together 9 1/3 shutout innings over three appearances. During that stretch, Brault has struck out 10 and walked only three while allowing five hits. Brault said he and Triple-A pitching coach Stan Kyles identified and addressed inconsistencies with his arm slot to improve his command.
"I'm not afraid of getting hit. I think that my stuff plays up pretty well no matter who I'm facing," Brault said. "If I can be in the zone, then I can be effective. I believe that. That's what Stan believes, truly, and that's what these guys believe. … Obviously being in Triple-A kind of [stunk], but I needed it. Hopefully throughout the rest of this year, this will continue."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Double trouble: The Pirates have grounded into 27 double plays this month, the most in the NL, and they once again proved to be costly on Tuesday. Francisco Cervelli broke up Flaherty's perfect game with a line-drive single to left in the fifth, but Corey Dickerson erased the Bucs' first baserunner with a double-play grounder before Bell ripped a double to right.
The Bucs, down 4-2, had runners on the corners with nobody out in the eighth. Adeiny Hechavarria's double-play grounder brought home one run but cleared the bases. Cervelli was hit by a pitch with one out in the ninth, but Bud Norris ended the game by forcing Dickerson to hit into a 3-6 double play.
"We were showing some signs and getting some things going," Hurdle said, "and double plays kicked us three times."
Brault became the first lefty reliever to strike out six batters in a game for the Pirates since Ron Villone fanned six on May 13, 2002, against the D-backs. Brault has also stranded all 14 of his inherited runners this season after leaving the bases loaded in the fourth.
HE SAID IT
"I just feel good. I just feel confident out there again. I feel like myself. I feel like I'm having fun. When somebody gets on base, I'm not panicking. … It's just, all right, next guy, next guy, next guy. Yeah, it's good."-- Brault, on his mindset and confidence
Trevor Williams (10-9, 3.44 ERA) will look to continue his excellent run on the mound as the Pirates face right-hander Miles Mikolas (13-3, 2.94) and the Cardinals at Busch Stadium at 8:15 p.m. ET on Wednesday. Williams has allowed four runs in 42 innings over his last seven starts, holding opposing batters to just a .212 average and .561 OPS during that stretch.