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Pirates gain in NL Central with win over Cards

ST. LOUIS -- Seeking to chip away at the Cardinals' division lead and assert themselves as still serious contenders in the National League Central, the Pirates opened a three-game series at Busch Stadium with a 9-3 statement win on Friday night behind another sensational start from J.A. Happ.

The win moves the Bucs to 5 1/2 games behind the Cardinals, who had won five of the previous six meetings between the divisional foes at Busch Stadium this year. Pittsburgh, which holds the top NL Wild Card spot, snapped a four-game losing streak with the victory.

Happ, who had lost his previous six starts against St. Louis, has been terrific since joining the Pirates on July 31. With seven shutout innings against the Cardinals, the lefty has now allowed just two runs over his last five starts. The Pirates have won all of those games.

"The past isn't something you think about. I know it's been probably a few years since I faced them," Happ said after his first start against the Cardinals since June 7, 2012. "That's a very good team over there, but when I can pitch off my fastball and get ahead of guys, I feel pretty good about my chances out there."

Happ allowed three singles, struck out eight, walked none and retired 15 straight at one point.

"I saw him a few times in Seattle this year and he still had the velocity, he was just erratic with his command," said Brandon Moss, who, after going 5-for-5 against Happ earlier this year, had one hit in three at-bats against the lefty on Friday. "He had the same velocity and movement of his two-seamer, but there it just seemed like he missed the zone a lot more. Whereas tonight, he was always ahead and they were quality pitches to get ahead."

Pittsburgh's offense supported Happ early, scoring twice in the first inning on RBI hits from Jung Ho Kang and Starling Marte off Cards starter Carlos Martinez. Marte's two-run double in the fifth later padded the lead. That frame would be Martinez's last. After allowing three or more runs in just three of his first 18 starts, the All-Star right-hander has now done so in seven consecutive games.

Video: [email protected]: Happ's seven shutout innings earn the win

Flare with a flair: The Pirates had gone four games without ever holding a lead when Kang came up in the top of the first with two on and proved one of baseball's adages -- nothing gets you out of a slump more than a puny hit. Kang fisted an opposite-field blooper into short right to drive in the first run.

Video: [email protected]: Kang bloops an RBI single to short right

Laboring from the top: The tone for Martinez's short night was set immediately, as Gregory Polanco worked a nine-pitch walk to lead off the first inning. Martinez went on to throw 36 pitches in the opening frame, which didn't end until after the Pirates had raced out to a 2-0 lead. Over five innings, Martinez threw 100 pitches. More >

"The first was a little rough for him," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Martinez. "You even look at the leadoff walk, and it's a little deceiving because he threw five strikes in that at-bat. ... But he wasn't that bad seeing that he ended the first throwing 36 pitches. He's got a hard uphill climb after that."

Video: [email protected]: Martinez fans Kang in the 5th

Startling the Cards: Marte came in with three hits in his last 26 at-bats, and by the fifth inning had as many RBIs after ripping the two-run double that doubled the Pirates' lead to 4-0. Earlier, Marte had singled in the second run of the Bucs' two-run first. It added up to his first three-RBI game since June 5, in Atlanta.

"That's the hit that stretched us out," said manager Clint Hurdle. "One of the challenges we've had here is adding on after we've scored, so a lot of close games have gone their way. Then we continued to add on throughout the evening."

Video: [email protected]: Marte hits an RBI single to left field

Welcome back: Though his presence did not impact the outcome, center fielder Jon Jay made his return to the field in the sixth inning as part of a Cardinals double-switch. Jay, who was treated to a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd, had missed the last two months while nursing a wrist injury. Jay went 0-for-2 at the plate. More >

"It's definitely a relief," Jay said. "We have talked about it all year -- when you're healthy, you're able to go out there and perform the way you want to perform. It's nice to be healthy."

Video: [email protected]: Jay receives standing ovation in return

"The one truth -- and we all get that -- is that the hourglass has been turned over. Each passing game is a game you don't recover." -- Hurdle, on the dwindling games, and the dwindling chances for his club to overtake the Cardinals

Cardinals reliever Randy Choate allowed an eighth-inning single to Polanco, the only batter he faced before being removed. That made Friday the 18th time this year that the lefty specialist has not recorded an out in an appearance. It's a Major League record, eclipsing the one set by Sean Runyan when he had 17 such appearances for the Tigers in 1998. Choate has not retired a batter in six of his last 10 outings.

Polanco was 0-for-23, with a lot of those outs coming on hard-hit balls, when he finally hit a smash to someone who wasn't wearing a glove -- his liner off Choate clipped second-base umpire Quinn Wolcott, resulting in a dead ball and an automatic hit.

"How about that?" Hurdle noted, with a grin. "The irony of it all. He swung the bat very well again, it's just been a tough stretch for him to get results."

Video: [email protected]: Umpire gets hit by line drive up the middle

Pirates: Charlie Morton (8-6, 4.22 ERA) faces the Cardinals as the series continues on Saturday at 4:05 p.m. ET. The Bucs are banking on reversing their fortunes behind the right-hander, having dropped 11 of his 14 starts against St. Louis since 2009.

Cardinals: Jaime Garcia (7-4, 2.03 ERA) will go after career win No. 50 as he starts against the Pirates on Saturday at 3:05 p.m. CT. The Cardinals have won each of Garcia's last six starts, with the left-hander posting a 2.08 ERA during that stretch.

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Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB, like her Facebook page Jenifer Langosch for and listen to her podcast. Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer and on his podcast.