PITTSBURGH -- Having lost a series in Philadelphia, the Cardinals relocated to the western part of the state on Monday night and subsequently regained some traction in a tight National League Central race by outlasting a nemesis.
Befuddled by starter Francisco Liriano for six innings, the Cardinals jumped on his replacement to stall the Pirates' climb up the division standings and propel their own with a 3-2 win in front of 24,352 at PNC Park. The win stretched the Cardinals' lead to three games atop the Wild Card standings, while remaining 1 1/2 games back of the first-place Brewers in the NL Central race.
"It's huge," said first baseman Matt Adams, who escaped a face-first fall onto a railing along the right-field line with only a cut after chasing a foul ball. "We're getting into the last month of the season, these guys are contenders, and we're chasing the Brewers. It was a big-time win.
The Pirates, who had taken four of six from the Cardinals at home early in the season, controlled the game until Jared Hughes relieved Liriano in the seventh. Hughes erased the baserunner he inherited with a pickoff, but he allowed a single to Tony Cruz before walking Matt Carpenter with two out to extend the inning.
As he saw the lineup poised to turn over, Jon Jay began to prepare in the Cardinals' dugout. He anticipated the move that manager Mike Matheny would eventually make when he swapped out Peter Bourjos for the left-handed hitter. Jay delivered a game-tying single.
"We tried to take a shot there, and Jon put together a great at-bat," Matheny said. "He was so ready. Even before I called for him, he was standing behind me with a bat in his hand and had his helmet ready to go. He sensed. He's smart. He knows the game. He sees the big opportunity."
"I was trying to mentally prepare," Jay added, "and get ready for the situation."
Andrew McCutchen's bobble in center allowed Carpenter and Jay to advance an additional base, positioning both to score when Matt Holliday followed with a go-ahead two-run single. It marked Holliday's 18th game-winning RBI of the season, most in the Majors.
"He likes to pitch middle-in to righties and try to get you to hit grounders," Holliday said. "I was just trying to hit it hard."
"Definitely did not get it where I wanted it to be, left it little up middle," Hughes said of the first-pitch fastball.
That second run, an unearned one, proved key when McCutchen later blasted a solo homer off closer Trevor Rosenthal in the ninth.
Though the Cardinals were unable to extend their stretch of scoring four-plus runs to an 11th straight game, those three runs were enough to back another strong start from John Lackey. After serving up a second-inning solo homer to Pedro Alvarez, Lackey shut down the Pirates' offense while waiting for his own to awaken.
Lackey wiggled out of first-inning trouble with a dazzling double play turn by Kolten Wong, and he got another twin killing in the fourth. Josh Harrison's flyout in the third stranded two in scoring position. Of the seven hits Lackey allowed, five came in his first turn through Pittsburgh's order.
It was a trial run of sorts for Lackey, who hadn't faced the Pirates in 10 years.
"Tony and I made some good adjustments after the first time through the lineup that helped me," Lackey said. "I have to see how they're going to approach me and make an adjustment."
After the second inning, the Pirates would not push another runner into scoring position. Lackey ended his seven-inning outing (his third start of that length since joining the organization) by retiring eight in a row. The final three outs came on eight pitches just after the Cardinals had taken the lead.
"It sets the tone for our club," Matheny said. "I think when you have a pitcher like Lackey on the mound, you know he's going to keep us in the game. We just have to fight through it and figure out how to get something going."
Liriano dueled Lackey well in a start reminiscent of those he made against the Cardinals last season, when he limited them to four earned runs over 30 innings. The Cardinals had knocked him around for seven earned runs in 13 innings this season, but they mustered only four hits on Monday. The first didn't come until the fourth.
The club's best chance to get to him was foiled by the inning-ending double play Oscar Taveras hit into with the bases full in the sixth. Taveras had his six-game hitting streak snapped with an 0-for-4 night.
"That one stung a little bit," Matheny said.
With his two late-inning relievers rested, Matheny opted against sending Lackey (91 pitches) out for the eighth. Pat Neshek covered that inning before Rosenthal worked past a leadoff homer to join Milwaukee's Francisco Rodriguez as NL leaders with 39 saves. He stranded the potential tying run at second.
"Big win today," Jay said. "We've said it all along that every game is so important here. It's going to go down to the wire. We just have to keep playing hard."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.