New guys have been key to Pirates’ mastery of Cardinals

ST. LOUIS — Forget about Pedro Alvarez being the Cardinals’ nemesis. That was last year’s news.

After pummeling St. Louis for seven homers, 23 RBI and a .397 batting average in 2012, Alvarez has been limited to two homers, 10 RBI and a .169 average in 2013.

Then how have the Pirates — who have won 10 of 16 games between the NL Central’s top two teams — been able to dominate the Cardinals this season?

Easy. It’s the newcomers. Catcher Russell Martin has picked up the power for Alvarez and Francisco Liriano has dominated Cardinals hitters even more than most left-handers.

The Cardinals won’t have to deal this weekend with Liriano, 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA in three starts against St. Louis. Liriano was beaten up by the Brewers on Wednesday night and is not scheduled to start again until next week.

Too bad for the Cardinals that Martin is ready to go. He is coming off two days’ rest after he sat out Wednesday’s loss to the Brewers and enjoyed an off day with his team Thursday. (No wonder the Pirates feel so at home in Busch Stadium. They’ve had two off days here in the past month.)

For the season, Martin is hitting about like you’d expect: .238 with 13 homers. But against the Cardinals, he’s hitting like Alvarez in 2012. Martin has blasted six homers and is hitting .304 in his 12 games against the Cardinals. If you didn’t see this coming, you’re not alone. While with the Dodgers from 2006-2010, Martin never homered against St. Louis.

Home runs have proved big in Pirates-Cardinals matchups this season. In winning 10 of the first 16 meetings, Pittsburgh has outscored St. Louis by 14 runs. That difference is in the long ball. The Pirates have out-homered the Cardinals by 15, at 18-3.

The Pirates come into the three-game set with a 1 1/2-game lead over second-place St. Louis in the NL Central. Pittsburgh moved back on top by winning two of three against the Cardinals last weekend.

Another difference in the clubs has been in their late-season roster improvements. While the Cardinals added right-hander John Axford to give manager Mike Matheny a veteran option in the bullpen, the Pirates upgraded their lineup and pitching. They traded for veterans Marlon Byrd, John Buck and Justin Morneau in August and just returned All-Star closer Jason Grilli from the disabled list to bolster their pitching.

The additions put the Pirates in even better position for continued success against the Cardinals, even if St. Louis can continue to hold down Pedro Alvarez.

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