By Will Graves
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH — 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.”
Cool under pressure
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.”