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Pirates drop fourth straight

A weird fourth inning yielded four runs, three unearned, as the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-1 in front of a packed house on Saturday night at PNC Park.

Francisco Liriano had retired eight straight batters before he allowed a Brandon Moss double to start off the fourth inning. Moss advanced on a wild pitch and scored when Jedd Gyorko struck out but the ball bounced off of the plate and squeaked through the legs of catcher Chris Stewart.

After Gyorko made it to first on the passed ball, things started to snowball for Liriano. The lefty walked Aledmys Diaz and then Matt Holliday powered an inside fastball into the bleachers above the right field wall.

“There are maybe a handful of players who can take the fastball that he threw to Holliday into the right field bleachers,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “Holliday just happened to be one of them.”

The three-run shot was Holliday’s tenth home run of the season and gave the Cardinals a 4-0 lead.

Those four runs were more than enough for Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez to pick up his seventh win of the season. The hard-throwing righty threw 85 of his 122 pitches for strikes and carved through the Pirates lineup for 8 and 1/3 innings. Martinez allowed one run on six hits and three walks.

St. Louis’s young righty struck out five Pirates and hit 100 mph on his 76th pitch. Hurdle joked that Martinez did not get loosened up until the sixth inning and said that the right-hander’s three-pitch mix was electric.

“There are night where good pitching stops good hitting,” Hurdle said. “I liked the battle that we put up against him, but there are nights were you just tip your hat and move on.”

The Pirates did not advance a runner to second base until Gregory Polanco led off the seventh inning with a double. Polanco would eventually score on a sacrifice fly to right field by Josh Harrison. Pittsburgh’s lone run allows them to remain the only team in the league who has not been shut out this season.

Martinez struck out Andrew McCutchen, who went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, to start the ninth inning, but walked Polanco and allowed a single to Jung Ho Kang. The righty gave way to closer Trevor Rosenthal, who cleaned up the mess and recorded his 12th save of the season.

Liriano received some extra time off this week and, aside from the fourth-inning blunder, looked more like the pitcher who the Pirates signed to a three-year, $39 million contract before the 2015 season. The lefty said that the time off allowed him the benefit of extra bullpen sessions, where he was told to slow things down and not get ahead of himself.

“Everything feels a lot better physically and mentally,” Liriano said. “I’ve just got to keep working on it and getting better with every start.”

Whatever work Liriano put in during these bullpen sessions paid off with one of his more dominating performances of the season. Liriano had recently struggled to do what he typically does best: Miss bats. That was not the case on Saturday night. Liriano struck out eight in six innings of work. The lefty allowed four runs, one earned, on four hits and three walks.

Stewart, who started in the place of the injured Francisco Cervelli, said that if it were not for his passed ball, Liriano could have been on his way to a special outing.

“If I could’ve kept that ball in front of me, with the pitcher coming up, we could have gotten two outs easily,” Stewart said. “Unfortunately, the ball got by me and the big home run put us into a pretty big hole.”

Overall, it was not a good night for the Pirates catcher. During a play at the plate, Jeremy Hazelbaker slid into Stewart’s foot and aggravated the catcher’s wonky right foot. Stewart fouled a ball off of his foot while facing New York Mets closer Jeurys Familia on Wednesday and again took a foul ball to his foot in Friday’s game against the Cardinals.

In the clubhouse, Stewart’s foot was taped up and he walked with a noticeable limp. Newly acquired catcher Erik Kratz, who came over from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in a trade earlier in the day, replaced Stewart in the eighth inning.

The loss drops the Pirates’ record down to 32-30. They have lost 11 out of their last 15 games.

The Pirates try to salvage a split of the series when they send left Jonathon Niese (6-2, 3.93 ERA) to the mound to take on Cardinals righty Mike Leake (4-4, 4.22 ERA). The game has a special 5:05 start time and will be shown on ESPN.

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