Dramatic series win over Buccos could provide boost Cards desperately needed

ST. LOUIS — For the first time this season, the Cardinals won a series against the Pirates, their 6-5, 12-inning victory Thursday afternoon serving as the clincher.

That wasn’t their only first of the three-game set. They also enjoyed their first two walk-off hits of the season as well as their first two victories after they had trailed by three or more runs. After coming back from 3-0 in the series opener, the Cardinals came back Thursday with a five-run fifth after the Pirates had scored four in the top of the inning.

The key for the Cardinals again was timely hitting. They had six hits in the inning, including three in a row with runners in scoring position.

“We talked before the series started that we wanted to play different than how we did in Pittsburgh,” said manager Mike Matheny, referring to losing four of five against the Pirates two weeks ago. “Having a walk-off win is a big deal, having one in this series is a big deal and then jumping on it again today is just the resiliency of this club.”

The Cardinals certainly picked a good time to show some bounce back. With the series victory, the Cardinals have trimmed the lead of the first-place Pirates to two games (man, it still feels strange typing “first place” and “Pirates” together). All of a sudden, the Pirates have dropped five of six and you can be sure with another loss or two, their second-half failures of the past two seasons will become a topic.

If the Cardinals haven’t totally emerged from the 4-13 funk that cost them the NL Central lead and their best record in the majors, they’re close.

One reason is Matt Holliday. The big left fielder is hitting like he’s ready to put the team on his shoulders for a stretch. After stretching his hitting streak to 12 games with an RBI double in the fifth, Holliday delivered the winning hit Thursday when he singled up the middle to score Matt Carpenter, who was on base for the fifth time.

Since coming off the disabled list with a minor hamstring issue, Holliday is hitting .405 and leads the team in runs and RBIs. His time on the DL could prove beneficial down the stretch. “You get 10 days where there’s no activity, it can help your body,” Holliday said.

Though the St. Louis bullpen numbers took some hits lately with the struggles of a couple of since-demoted rookies, it pitched as well as it has all season against the Pirates. Matched against the bullpen with the majors’ second-best ERA, it was the Cardinals’ relievers who stood out in the series. They allowed only one run in 16 2/3 innings of work against the Pirates, including 6 2/3 innings in relief of Lance Lynn Thursday.

Closer Edward Mujica continued his career year with two outings of two scoreless innings against Pittsburgh, including an efficient 24-pitch outing Thursday. Mujica did walk his first batter since June 25, which gave him a total of three for the season. With 31 saves and a 1.68 ERA, he might be pitching himself right out of the Cardinals’ price range for 2014.

Trevor Rosenthal allowed the only run when he gave up a game-typing homer to Russell Martin, leading off the eighth. “I left a fastball up,” Rosenthal said.

But the rookie right-hander showed in the ninth there’s little need to worry about him. He blew away Starling Marte with a 99 mph fastball, caught Neal Walker looking at an 87 mph changeup and retired MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen on a fly to center.

“I’m ready to fire him out there every time we get a chance when we get a lead,” Matheny said.

The other rookies, Kevin Siegrist (0.78 ERA) and Seth Maness (2.17), continue to pitch well above the expectations anyone could have had for them coming into the season. Both threw a scoreless inning in the series finale and Siegrist even picked up his first win.

After their emotional comeback victory on Monday, the Cardinals talked about how that could be the beginning of a hot stretch. Then they went out and were dominated by Francisco Liriano in the second game.

Maybe that second comeback victory will be the one that spurs them on. There are other enough indicators to believe they’re headed in the right direction, anyway.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.