The St. Louis Cardinals are back in a familiar spot: on top of the NL Central looking down at everyone else.
Jason Heyward’s third-inning grand slam powered the Cardinals over the Pittsburgh Pirates 11-1 in the second game of a doubleheader on Wednesday night, giving St. Louis its third straight division title and 11th since 1994.
This one may be among the most impressive. The Cardinals and assured themselves of the best record in the majors this season despite losing several stars to injury for long stretches.
Heyward’s shot off Bobby LaFromboise, who replaced an ineffective Charlie Morton (9-9), gave St. Louis an early six-run lead. Tyler Lyons (3-1) had little trouble making it hold up as the Cardinals reached the 100-win plateau for the ninth time.
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St. Louis players jogged out of their dugout to the infield in a businesslike celebration of their fifth straight postseason berth. Their season-long run atop baseball’s most competitive division – and the ease in which the team did it – is all the more stunning considering the obstacles it had to overcome.
The Cardinals held off the Pirates and the Chicago Cubs even though ace Adam Wainwright, sluggers Matt Holliday and Matt Adams and high-profile relievers Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle spent large chunks of the season on the disabled list.
Wainwright returned from a torn left Achilles to pitch one inning of mop-up duty during an 8-2 loss in the opener, his astounding recovery four months ahead of schedule. Even made Pirates manager Clint Hurdle break out in applause when Wainwright raced in from the bullpen in the eighth inning of the opener.
Yet to Wainwright, watching what the Cardinals did without him was just as impressive.
“I’m ridiculously impressed,” the three-time All-Star said on Tuesday, hours before being activated off the DL. “I think if you asked anybody in the distinguished media before the season if (we) lost (our) No. 1 pitcher and No. 3 hitter, No. 4 hitter and two set-up guys … nobody would have us (here).”
Certainly not the Pirates, who have spent the last four months breathlessly trying to track down the Cardinals only to come up short even though they have the second-best record in the majors. Pittsburgh will play in the wild-card round for the third straight year when it faces the Cubs next Wednesday, with the site still to be determined.
The Pirates missed a chance to inject some real drama into the final week of the regular season when it left 16 runners on base in a 3-0 loss on Monday night. Though Gerrit Cole threw seven strong innings in the opener on Wednesday to briefly pull the Pirates within three games, the Cardinals wasted little time getting to Morton, just like always.
Morton came in winless against St. Louis since April 4, 2011, a span of 11 starts. Tasked with forcing the Cardinals to wrap up the division in Atlanta on Friday, Morton faltered against his long-time nemesis once again.
Carpenter led off the game with a triple to the gap in left-center, with normally sure handed Pittsburgh outfielders Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen letting the ball scoot between them. Carpenter scored on a double play, Heyward singled and then scored on a double by Adams.
Morton temporarily gathered himself only to unravel completely in the third. Carpenter doubled, Morton hit Jon Jay with a pitch and walked Jhonny Peralta. LaFromboise came in for Morton only to watch Heyward send his fourth pitch streaking into the seats in right-center to make it 6-0 and send the attendants in the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park scrambling to prepare for a postgame celebration.
Lyons, who has struggled while starting this season, didn’t let the cushion go to waste. He gave up four hits in seven innings, striking out five without a walk.
Francisco Cervelli’s grand slam off Michael Wacha (17-7) provided Cole (19-8) all the offense he would need to improve to 12-2 in September during his young career. Neil Walker also homered for the Pirates.
Cardinals: Made room for Wainwright by placing RHP Carlos Martinez on the 60-day disabled list with a strained right forearm.
Pirates: Cervelli was treated between games by trainers after taking a foul ball off his left ear in the opener. He remained in the game and started the nightcap, a rarity for a catcher.
Cardinals: St. Louis wraps up the year with a three-game set with the Braves in Atlanta starting Friday. Jaime Garcia (10-5, 2.36 ERA) starts on Friday against Julio Tehran (10-8, 4.16).
Pirates: Host Cincinnati on Friday looking to secure homefield advantage in next Wednesday’s wild-card game against the Cubs. Francisco Liriano (12-7, 3.27 ERA) will look for his 10th win in his last 11 decisions.