PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Pushed to the brink, the St. Louis Cardinals and rookie Michael Wacha pushed back.
Now it's back to Busch Stadium with a trip to the NL championship series on the line for baseball's most resilient team and the club they've been unable to shake for the better part of six months.
Wacha took a no-hitter into the eighth and the Cardinals avoided elimination with a 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday in Game 4 of the NL division series to set up a winner-take-all Game 5 on Wednesday night.
Adam Wainwright will start for the NL Central champion Cardinals against Pittsburgh rookie Gerrit Cole. Both pitchers won earlier in the series.
"It's going to be fun," Carlos Beltran said. "We're going back home, we have our best pitcher on the mound - our ace - and I really like our chances."
So do the Pirates.
Manager Clint Hurdle opted for Cole rather than veteran A.J. Burnett after the Cardinals shelled Burnett for seven runs in two-plus innings in Game 1.
"We have one game to win," Hurdle said. "I believe that matchup is the best we can do to beat the Cardinals in Game 5."
Something the Pirates failed to do at home in front of a record crowd at PNC Park anxious to celebrate with champagne for the second time in a week. Pittsburgh popped the bubbly after beating Cincinnati in the wild-card game last Tuesday. This time, the bottles remained corked after Wacha pitched like a guy who'd been in the majors for years, not months.
"He was unhittable, actually," Beltran said. "He gave us an opportunity to win. We scored just two runs, but you just had the feeling it was going to be enough."
St. Louis improved to 7-1 over the last three years with its season on the line when Rosenthal got Pittsburgh MVP-candidate Andrew McCutchen to pop out to second with one on in the ninth.
"I think you take high talent and high character people that are motivated and support each other, and they don't give up," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "That's a tough combination."
One the Pirates are still trying to master.
Pedro Alvarez hit his third home run of the series, connecting with one out in the eighth for Pittsburgh's only hit. It wasn't enough for the Pirates to advance to the NL championship series for the first time in 21 years.
"I guess that's why we play five," McCutchen said. "We'll be ready for the fifth one."
The Pirates weren't quite ready for the fourth one, not with the way Wacha was dealing. He walked two and struck out nine before giving way to the bullpen in the eighth.
The Cardinals finished with only three hits but only really needed one: Holliday's two-run homer in the sixth off Charlie Morton.
"You could go back and look at pitches over and over again and second guess yourself," Morton said. "I don't know where that pitch was. It was outer third somewhere, thigh-down and he went out and got it, he's strong."
So was the 6-foot-6 kid on the mound, the one barely a year removed from a standout college career at Texas A&M. Wacha didn't permit a runner until walking Russell Martin leading off the sixth.
Wacha nearly no-hit the Washington Nationals in his last start on Sept. 24, surrendering only an infield single by Ryan Zimmerman with two outs in the ninth.
Working so quickly the Pirates never had time to get settled, he breezed through Pittsburgh's revamped lineup like he was in extended spring training. Mixing his fastball and changeup masterfully, Wacha overwhelmed the Pirates from the moment he stepped onto the mound.
"He went out and hit his spots and it seemed like everything we were hitting, we were just missing, just missing," McCutchen said.
Wacha's only mistake came in the eighth when he fell behind 3-1 to Alvarez and the third baseman hit a 93 mph fastball at the knees onto the concourse in right-center.
The jolt, however, faded when Molina nailed Harrison at second minutes later to set up a 24th - and final - meeting between two teams that have been shadowing each other all summer and into the fall.
While the Cardinals have the experience, the Pirates don't think it will be an advantage on Wednesday. They've been bucking history all year. One more night shouldn't be a problem.
"A lot of the guys in the clubhouse have never even been on a winning team, let alone the playoffs," Morton said. "I really think it's not about where we've been in terms of overall experience but where we are now. I think we've done a great job of that and staying in this thing level headed."
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PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Pedro Alvarez and the Pirates kept that Jolly Roger flapping high above Pittsburgh.
Alvarez hit a tiebreaking single in the eighth inning and the Pirates beat the St. Louis Cardinals 5-3 on Sunday to take a 2-1 lead in best-of-five NL division series.
Alvarez pulled a grounder into right field that scored pinch-runner Josh Harrison from second base. Russell Martin followed with a sharp RBI single against reliever Kevin Siegrist, who took over after Carlos Martinez (0-1) faltered.
The go-ahead single was the latest big hit by Alvarez. He homered in the first two games of the series and is 4 for 10 with four RBIs.
Alvarez also kept the Pirates' famous flag flying high in October. "Raise the Jolly Roger!" is the rallying cry for this wild-card team, now one victory from its first postseason series win since the 1979 World Series.
Mark Melancon (1-0) picked up the win despite allowing Carlos Beltran's tying home run in the top of the eighth. Jason Grilli worked the ninth for a save.
Charlie Morton is set to start for the Pirates in Game 4 on Monday against rookie Michael Wacha.
Beltran finished 2 for 3 with three RBIs. His 16th postseason home run moved him past Babe Ruth for eighth place in postseason history.
Beltran's shot temporarily silenced a rocking crowd at PNC Park. It also set the stage for another dramatic win by the Pirates.
Andrew McCutchen led off the eighth with his second hit, a double to left. But the NL MVP candidate unwisely tried to advance on Justin Morneau's grounder to shortstop and was an easy out at third.
Harrison ran for Morneau and moved up when Marlon Byrd walked. St. Louis manager Mike Matheny turned to the lefty Siegrist to face the left-handed Alvarez. The Pittsburgh slugger tied for the NL lead with 36 homers in the regular season, but hit just .180 against lefties.
Alvarez responded with his single between first and second. Martin then tried to drop down a squeeze bunt to score Byrd from third - he fouled it off, then lined a hit to left that gave Grilli more than enough cushion.
Martin's sacrifice fly off reliever Seth Maness in the sixth gave the Pirates a 3-2 lead and turned the game over to Pittsburgh's "Shark Tank" bullpen, one of the keys to the franchise's first winning season and playoff berth in 21 years.
Tony Watson worked around a one-out single in the seventh before giving way to Melancon in the eighth.
Melancon stepped in capably for a while when Grilli, the All-Star closer, went down with a strained right forearm in July. But Melancon struggled down the stretch and his fourth blown save in the last three weeks came courtesy of Beltran, who knows a thing or two about delivering this time of year.
Pirates starter Francisco Liriano dominated the Cardinals during the regular season, going 3-0 with an 0.75 ERA in his three starts against the NL's highest-scoring team. He was electric in Pittsburgh's wild-card win over Cincinnati last Tuesday, shaking off a sinus infection and baffling the Reds with a series of changeups and sliders that ended Cincinnati's season and manager Dusty Baker's tenure.
The sharpness that fueled Liriano's career-reviving year abandoned him after his first trip through the St. Louis lineup. He narrowly escaped the third inning when Matt Holliday lined to right with the bases loaded.
Liriano wasn't quite as fortunate in the fifth. Jon Jay led off with a single and Pete Kozma followed with a walk. After Joe Kelly struck out trying to bunt, a double steal set up Beltran's two-run single.
At 2-all, the Cardinals had matched their entire output against Liriano in their previous 28 innings.
Liriano was matched nearly pitch for pitch by the unflappable Kelly. The 25-year-old right-hander has been rock steady all season, even as he moved from middle reliever to starter in July.
Kelly welcomed the hostile environment, calling the sea of black-clad fans that awaited him one of the things a kid dreams about.
The reality proved a little more unnerving, at least early.
Nibbling at the corners, Kelly walked McCutchen with two outs in the first and Morneau followed with a line drive that smacked off the pitcher's leg and rolled weakly behind the mound. Kozma's rushed throw from shortstop skipped into the stands, putting runners in scoring position for Byrd.
The well-traveled outfielder - who played in 1,250 regular- season games before reaching the playoffs for the first time - has been a welcome jolt both in the lineup and in the clubhouse for the Pirates. He delivered again, hitting a two-run single that put the Pirates ahead.
NOTES: Grilli worked around a leadoff single in the ninth.
NEW YORK (AP) -- For the fourth straight week, the top five teams in The Associated Press college football poll are unchanged, led by No. 1 Alabama.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide received 55 of 60 first-place votes after an easy victory and No. 2 Oregon received the other five after its latest blowout. Clemson is No. 3, followed by Ohio State and Stanford.
The Buckeyes and Cardinal were both tested Saturday night and stayed unbeaten. Ohio State rallied to win at Northwestern, 40-30. The Wildcats slipped three spots to No. 19. Stanford held off Washington 31-28. The Huskies dropped only one spot to No. 16.
No. 23 Northern Illinois, No. 24 Virginia Tech and No. 25 Missouri moved into the rankings for the first time this season. Arizona State, Mississippi and Maryland dropped out.
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Gerrit Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates played a game of role reversal, and pulled even with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The hard-throwing rookie gave up two hits in six dominant innings and also had an RBI in his postseason debut, Pedro Alvarez homered for the second straight day and the Pirates beat the Cardinals 7-1 Friday to even their NL division series at one game apiece.
"Just what we've been seeing all year," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "You saw a focused man that was ready to go."
A day after St. Louis got a strong effort from its starter and took advantage of mistakes to romp 9-1 in the opener, the Pirates showed poise for their first playoff win since 1992 while the Cardinals looked tentative in the field.
The Pirates now head home for Game 3 Sunday in the best-of-five series. Wild-card game winner Francisco Liriano faces Cardinals right-hander Joe Kelly.
Cole faced the Cardinals for the first time and left most of them shaking their heads, striking out five and walking one. After allowing Carlos Beltran's double with one out in the first, the 22-year-old retired 11 straight before Yadier Molina led off the fifth with his third career postseason homer.
Relying on a fastball that peaked at 99 mph on the stadium radar gun and one that TBS had at 100, Cole had hitters helpless at times even without shadows that benefited pitchers early in Game 1.
"I just trusted myself and tried to keep it as simple as I could," Cole said. "You just try and clear you mind after every pitch and just look forward."
When he got in the least bit of trouble, Cole ignored chants from a second straight sellout crowd at Busch Stadium.
"You just have to take a deep breath," Cole said. "Rip off the rear-view mirror on the car."
Cardinals starter Lance Lynn needed some help. He hasn't lasted long enough to qualify for the victory in any of his three career postseason starts and yielded five runs and seven hits in 4 1-3 innings.
"It was a bad game," Lynn said. "I made four bad pitches for four extra-base hits. When I made a mistake with the fastball, they were ready for it."
Lynn was manager Matheny's choice for Game 2 ahead of rookies Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha, the decision based on the right-hander's strong September and 9-3 record at home.
Wacha (4-1, 2.78) will oppose Charlie Morton (7-4, 3.26) in Game 4 Monday.
Alvarez doubled and scored on Cole's single in the second to put the Pirates ahead - eighth-place hitter Jordy Mercer was walked intentionally ahead of Cole.
Center fielder Jon Jay said he should have tracked down the double by Alvarez.
"That's a play I've got to make and I didn't," Jay said. "That's on me."
Alvarez then hit a 418-foot, two-run homer in the third.
Pirates pitchers totaled 10 RBIs during the season and Cole had five of them, including two in his final start.
Third baseman David Freese dropped Marlon Byrd's pop fly for an error in gusting wind in the seventh inning, leading to a run.
Lynn made it to the fifth for the first time, but just barely. Miller warmed up in the third and Lynn was yanked with one out after back-to-back doubles by Justin Morneau and Byrd that put the Pirates up 5-0, followed by a four-pitch walk to Alvarez that gave reliever Seth Maness a little more time to warm up.
Miller worked the eighth and gave up a homer to Starling Marte.
Liriano is 4-0 with a 1.16 career ERA in four starts against the Cardinals. He dominated in three starts this year, including a complete game in St. Louis, and allowed 10 hits in 22 innings with 20 strikeouts. He was the winner Tuesday night against Cincinnati in front of a raucous crowd in Pittsburgh that was celebrating the Pirates' return to the postseason.
Kelly (10-5, 2.69) thrived as a fill-in starter for the second straight season and won eight straight decisions.
NOTES: Injured Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter threw the first pitch to his son, Sam, and was accompanied to the mound by his daughter, Ava. ... Daniel Descalso made the last out in the second inning and the first out in the Cardinals' NL division series-record seven-run third in Game 1. ... Molina's last postseason homer came in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS against the Mets.
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- David Backes had a goal and assist in the first period to lead the St. Louis Blues to a 4-2 win over the Nashville Predators on Thursday in the season opener for both teams.
The Blues scored three times in the first 9:45 to jump in front 3-0 and chase Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne.
Jaroslav Halak made 28 saves for the Blues and improved to 9-3-3 against the Predators.
Backes, Vladimir Sobotka, T.J. Oshie and Alex Steen scored for St. Louis, which was 2 of 4 on the power play.
St. Louis has won four of its past five home openers.
Nashville, which missed the playoffs last season, is 7-7-1 in season openers.
Backes scored from close range at 2:05, just three seconds after Matt Cullen was sent off for tripping. Backes pounced on a shot from the blue line by Alex Pietrangelo, who added two first-period assists.
Sobotka tallied on a break along the left wing to make it 2-0. He went by Kevin Klein and sent a backhand behind Rinne.
Oshie converted on a pass from Steen to push the lead to 3-0. Rinne was pulled after giving up three goals on six shots.
Nashville climbed within 3-2 on goals by Mike Fisher and David Legwand.
Steen scored a power-play goal at 11:16 of the second period to stretch the lead to 4-2.
NOTES: The game began at 7:48 p.m. local time, 43 minutes after the final out of the Cardinals' 9-1 win over Pittsburgh in the opening game of the NL Division Series. The Blues moved the start time back 30 minutes to allow fans to make the five-block trip from Busch Stadium. ... St. Louis has made the playoffs in 37 of its 46 seasons. ... Nashville coach Barry Trotz is the longest-tenured head coach with the same team with 1,115 games. ... St. Louis LW Brenden Morrow fixed his work-visa problems earlier in the day and was able to play. ... Blues coach Ken Hitchcock improved to 10-3-4 in season openers. ... Nashville defenseman Seth Jones, the No. 4 overall pick in last year's draft, made his debut. He is the son of former NBA journeyman Popeye Jones.
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Carlos Beltran, Adam Wainwright and the St. Louis Cardinals gave Pittsburgh a quick reality jolt.
Beltran's three-run homer sparked a seven-run third inning Thursday and the Cardinals got seven stingy innings from Wainwright to open their NL division series with a 9-1 rout of the Pirates.
"To be able to get out on a good first step and play well today I think is big for our guys confidence-wise," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. "Gives us an opportunity to just take some momentum, and momentum is big right now when you talk about a five-game series."
The first eight Cardinals reached safely in the third to chase A.J. Burnett, saddling the right-hander with the second-shortest outing of his career and putting Game 1 out of reach early.
A sellout crowd roared and then settled in for an easy victory by the NL Central champions, making their third consecutive trip to the postseason.
"Game 164 was rough," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "One of the things we've been good at is we don't overcook things."
Lance Lynn (15-10) faces Pittsburgh rookie Gerrit Cole (10-7) in Game 2 on Friday.
After a record 20 straight losing seasons, the Pirates are back in the playoffs for the first time since 1992. They entered their first best-of-five division series with plenty of momentum after beating Cincinnati in the wild-card game Tuesday, but Pittsburgh never threatened to rally against Wainwright and finished with only four hits.
Pittsburgh also was sloppy in the field, committing three errors. St. Louis was sharp on defense, with reliever Carlos Martinez turning in the top play by slinging an off-balance throw to first to nip Russell Martin in the eighth.
"What a play!" Matheny mouthed in the dugout.
Third baseman David Freese prevented extra bases in the third with a diving catch on Clint Barmes' low liner.
Wainwright remained unbeaten in the postseason, going to 3-0 with a 2.27 ERA in 14 games, five of them starts.
He allowed a run on three hits in seven innings, striking out nine without a walk. The only damage came on a homer by Pedro Alvarez to start the fifth.
The right-hander tied for the NL lead with 19 wins this year and was 4-0 in his last five starts. He thrives on expectations.
"I'd love to be that guy," Wainwright said. "It's important to have somebody go out there that you can count on for sure."
Wainwright also started the Cardinals' big burst with a leadoff, full-count walk.
Beltran, who has never reached the World Series, reprised his role as one of the game's greatest playoff sluggers. His 443-foot drive to the distant second deck in right field put St. Louis ahead and was the second-longest shot by a left-handed batter at 8-year-old Busch Stadium.
"I almost got caught up in the moment," said Wainwright, who had a perfect view from second base. "I threw my hands up in the air as soon as he hit it, I knew it was gone.
"Then I realized I had to run."
Beltran has 15 home runs, 10 doubles and 28 RBIs in 35 postseason games. He also has scored 40 runs and stolen 11 bases.
Leadoff man Matt Carpenter called Beltran "Mr. October."
"He's like our secret weapon when it comes to the postseason. He steps up every time," Carpenter said. "Some guys just have a knack for a big game and he's one of them."
Beltran's 13 career RBIs against Burnett are the most of any player.
Beltran's homer got the Cardinals going, and Jon Jay later walked with the bases loaded. Freese added a two-run single that cleared the bases when right fielder Marlon Byrd's throw to the plate deflected off Freese's leg for an error.
Burnett was 3-1 against the Cardinals this season but has gotten rocked in his last two visits to St. Louis, also giving up five runs in three innings in early September. In five outings at Busch Stadium the last two seasons he has a 15.50 ERA.
"Hopefully, we can turn it around and give me a chance to get that ball again," Burnett said. "I was not able to repeat a single delivery all day, that's the bottom line."
Hurdle was non-committal on whether Burnett would get the ball if the Pirates make it to Game 5, again in St. Louis.
"I do believe that he's capable of going out and throwing a gem the next time he's out there, wherever that may be," Hurdle said.
While the Pirates may have had trouble at the plate and in the field with the shadows, the late-afternoon start didn't seem to bother the Cardinals.
"Everybody was seeing the ball good today," rookie Matt Adams said.
NOTES: Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon threw the first pitch in the dirt, with reserve Shane Robinson making a nice scoop. ... St. Louis OF Matt Holliday walked and doubled his first two trips and had reached base safely in nine straight plate appearances before grounding out to start the fourth. ... The Cardinals claimed OF Joey Butler on waivers, three days after he was designated for assignment by the Rangers. Butler spent most of the year at Triple-A Round Rock, batting .291 with 12 homers and 51 RBIs.
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Pirates are riding high after their first postseason victory in 21 years. They're confident they can beat anybody, anywhere.
A few hours after defeating Cincinnati in the NL wild-card game Tuesday night, the Pirates touched down in St. Louis. They're about to face another familiar foe in an unfamiliar month when they take on the NL Central champion Cardinals in a best-of-five division series.
"We know them, they know us," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "There won't be any ball tricks, I hope. No Statue of Liberty plays."
A.J. Burnett, set to start the series opener Thursday, was a part of three New York Yankees teams that made it to October. He said Wednesday there's a sense of euphoria with this experience that was lacking before.
"I guess the main thing is, over in New York, it's expected every year, you know?" Burnett said. "You tend to get in there a couple of weeks before the season ends. And this one was more of a `Shock the world, we're going to do it, we made it!'"
The Pirates won the season series 10-9, but the Cardinals overtook them for the division lead with a four-game sweep at home in early September. St. Louis also has quite an advantage in postseason experience, with several holdovers from the 2011 World Series championship team and from last year, too, when St. Louis fell one win shy of a second straight pennant.
The Cardinals earned some time off after winning six in a row to end the season. They won their first NL Central crown since 2009 and secured home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs.
Their .330 average with runners in scoring position was the majors' best dating to 1974, when the statistic was first used. So far, they've done fine without injured Allen Craig, who missed almost all of September and isn't expected back from a left mid-foot sprain until at least the NL championship series.
"We played really well most of the year minus a couple of dips here and there that every team has," said Matt Holliday, who batted .378 over the final month to finish at .300. "I'd say, just try to roll that momentum into the postseason."
Adam Wainwright has to like this matchup, too. St. Louis' ace will pitch the opener and would also be available on full rest for a possible deciding Game 5. He went 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in three starts against Pittsburgh this season.
Wainwright (19-9, 2.94 ERA) got rocked for 15 runs over eight innings in consecutive starts against the Reds. One of them he labeled, "the worst start of my career," before rebounding in the win that put the Cardinals in first place to stay. He was 4-0 in his final five starts, working seven or more innings in all of them except for a tuneup his last time out.
"Well, aside from Clayton Kershaw this year, I'd argue that you could look at any single pitcher in the history of the game and they're going to have a bad game or two in the course of 35 starts," Wainwright said.
"I didn't need to do anything different. I just had a bad day."
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny described Wainwright, the third pitcher in franchise history to lead the league in wins twice, as a "fierce competitor."
"All in all, a Cy Young-caliber season," Matheny said. "We're not afraid to put him on the mound against anybody."
Burnett (10-11, 3.30 ERA) is 3-1 with a 3.67 ERA in his career against the Cardinals, but the last time he faced them he gave up five runs in three innings - his shortest outing of the year. In two appearances at Busch Stadium, he allowed 12 runs in 13 1-3 innings.
"It's just execution, that's all it is," Burnett said. "It's a great lineup over there. You can't make too many mistakes because they'll capitalize on them.
"The good ones I have limited those and the ones that got me, I haven't been able to execute."
The Cardinals haven't announced a starter after Lance Lynn, who will face rookie Gerrit Cole in Game 2 on Friday. Matheny has three strong candidates in Joe Kelly and rookies Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha. The manager said Miller and Wacha would be available in the bullpen for Game 1.
Miller led all rookies with 15 wins this year, Wacha was one out shy of a no-hitter in his final regular-season start and Kelly was 10-5 with a 2.69 ERA.
Hurdle said Francisco Liriano, the winner in the wild-card game, will start Game 3 on Sunday in Pittsburgh.
CLEVELAND (AP) -- Alex Cobb dodged trouble for nearly seven innings and the Tampa Bay Rays pitched their way to another must-have win on the road, beating the Cleveland Indians 4-0 on Wednesday night in the AL wild-card game.
Cobb, who missed a chunk of the regular season after he was hit in the head by a line drive, quieted a thundering Cleveland crowd and ended the Indians' unexpected season.
Delmon Young homered in the third inning off rookie Danny Salazar as the Rays, playing in their third city over four days, advanced to face the AL East champion Boston Red Sox in the division series starting Friday.
Cobb's comeback in August from his frightening injury helped stabilize the Rays, who have spent the past two weeks winning crucial games to make the postseason for the fourth time in six years.