Nicascio helps Pirates beat Cardinals 5-1 for 3-game sweep
PITTSBURGH — Juan Nicasio had such an outstanding spring that he found no reason to make any changes in his first regular-season start.
Nicasio pitched six dominant innings and Francisco Cevelli hit a two-run double as the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the St. Louis Cardinals 5-1 Wednesday night to sweep an opening three-game series between the teams with the best regular-season records in the major leagues last year.
Nicasio gave up one run and two hits while striking out seven and walking none. Signed to a $3 million, one-year contract as a free agent in the offseason, Nicasio pitched 15 scoreless innings in exhibition games with 24 strikeouts.
"I'm just coming to the field and doing everything I can to help my team win," Nicasio said. "I'm not thinking too much. I'm just trying to take it batter-by-batter, pitch-by-pitch, trying to get each hitter out.
"All I want to do is just give my team a chance to win every fifth day. It feels good that I was able to do that in my first time out."
Cervelli's two-run double capped a three-run fourth inning that pushed the Pirates' lead to 4-0 and ended the Cardinals' debut of Mike Leake (0-1), who signed an $80 million, five-year contract. He allowed four runs and seven hits in 4 1/3 innings.
"I couldn't hit my spots," Leake said. "I couldn't throw strikes. I was just erratic."
Mark Melancon retired the only batter he faced for his first save, getting Kolten Wong to hit into a forceout with runners on first and second.
Pittsburgh, 3-0 for the first time since 2007, was 98-64 last season but finished two games behind the Cardinals (100-62) in the NL Central and lost to the Chicago Cubs in the NL wild-card game.
"It was a good first series, a good example of teamwork," Pirates first baseman John Jaso said. "The pitching was great and everyone in the lineup, one through eight, contributed."
Though the Pirates have finished second to the Cardinals in the division race each of the last three seasons and settled for playing in the wild card game each time, Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle downplayed the significance of the early sweep.
"We've reached a point now where we're no longer surprised when we play well," Hurdle said.
Leake walked Gregory Polanco with the bases-loaded during a 42-pitch first inning. Before Cervelli's double, Jaso led off the fourth with a triple and continued home on an errant relay throw by Wong from second.
Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte had two hits each for the Pirates and pinch-hitter Sean Rodriguez hit an RBI double in the sixth inning to cap the scoring.
St. Louis rookie Jeremy Hazlebaker hit his first career home run leading off the sixth.
Cardinals: LHP Marco Gonzales, a first-round draft pick in 2013, will begin the season on the disabled list at Triple-A Memphis with elbow discomfort. He is expected to get a second opinion with a visit to orthopedist Dr. Neal ElAttrache on Thursday or Friday in Los Angeles. Gonzales pitched in 11 games for the Cardinals over the last two seasons, six of which were starts, and was 4-2 with a 4.82 ERA.
Pirates: 3B Jung Ho Kang (recovering from reconstructive left knee surgery) played five innings Wednesday in a minor league intrasquad game in Bradenton, Florida, and had four at-bats, though he was limited to running only to first base. ... RHP Jared Hughes (strained left lat) threw off the slope of the mound at Bradenton and is expected to throw off the top of the mound in the next few days.
MOLINA MAKES HISTROY
C Yadier Molina's 1,439th game caught tied the Cardinals' record set by Ted Simmons from 1968-80. Molina, who broke into the major leagues in 2004 with St. Louis, has won eight consecutive Gold Gloves and been selected to seven All-Star Games.
LUEBKE'S WAIT ENDS
Pirates LHP Cory Luebke got two outs in the ninth inning in his first major league appearance since April 27, 2012, with the San Diego Padres. Luebke sat out the 2013 and 2014 seasons while undergoing two Tommy John elbow ligament transplant surgeries and was limited to seven innings in the minor leagues last year.
FIRST TIME OUT
Cardinals RHP Matt Bowman pitched two scoreless innings in his major league debut. St. Louis selected him from the New York Mets in the winter meetings draft.
Jaso's triple gave the Pirates a three-base hit in each of the first three games of a season for the first time since 1910, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Cervelli tripled in Sunday's opener Polanco hit one Tuesday night.
Cardinals: LHP Jaime Garcia (10-6 with a 2.43 ERA last year) is to start Friday at Atlanta, which goes with RHP Matt Wisler (8-8, 4.71 ERA).
Pirates: Pittsburgh starts a three-game series Friday night at Cincinnati with LHP Francisco Liriano (1-0) opposing RHP Alfredo Simon (13-12 last year).