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Pirates tumble out of first place after tough loss to rival Cardinals

| Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
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Pirates players in the dugout watch the ninth inning of their game against the Cardinals on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in St. Louis.
Pirates relief pitcher Jason Grilli tosses a ball in the air after walking the Cardinals' Pete Kozma during the eighth inning on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in St. Louis.
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The Cardinals' Shane Robinson is tagged out by Pirates catcher Russell Martin in the sixth inning on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
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Pirates starter Jeff Locke pitches against the Cardinals in the first inning on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
The Cardinals' David Freese (right) rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run off Pirates relief pitcher Jeanmar Gomez (left) during the sixth inning Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in St. Louis.
Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes commits a throwing error trying to force the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter out at second during the fifth inning on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in St. Louis. Carpenter went to third on the play and later scored in the inning.
The Cardinals' Shane Robinson (left) is out at the plate following a tag by Pirates catcher Russell Martin during the fifth inning Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in St. Louis.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (center) argues with home plate umpire Larry Vanover (right) after Vanover ruled the Cardinals' Shane Robinson was tagged out at the plate by Pirates catcher Russell Martin (left) during the fifth inning Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in St. Louis.
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Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen reacts to striking out during the sixth inning against the Cardinals on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in St. Louis.
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Pirates starting pitcher Jeff Locke delivers a pitch to a Cardinals batter during the first inning on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in St. Louis.
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Pirates reliever Tony Watson pitches against the Cardinals in the eighth inning on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Cardinals beat the Pirates, 5-0.
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Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez throws out a runner at first base against the Cardinals in the sixth inning on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Cardinals beat the Pirates, 5-0.
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Pirates reliever Jeanmar Gomez pitches against the Cardinals in the sixth inning on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Cardinals beat the Pirates, 5-0.
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Pirates reliever Jason Grilli pitches against the Cardinals in the eighth inning on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Cardinals beat the Pirates, 5-0.

ST. LOUIS — Since the middle of July, the Pirates have played more like a .500 team than a contender for the National League pennant.

Their pitching, which carried the club early in the season, has started to lag. The offense, even after the additions of sluggers Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, remains inconsistent. Occasional defensive lapses are no longer easily overcome.

All three factors came into play Saturday in a 5-0 loss against the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Pirates tumbled into second place in the NL Central, a half-game behind the Cardinals. Cincinnati, winners of three straight, is one game behind the Pirates.

“A week ago, we beat them twice and moved into first,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It's a week later. We expected to be here. We don't expect to go away. We know we need to play better, but we don't need to hurry and play better.”

On Aug. 8, the Pirates were 26 games over .500, their high-water mark this season. Since then, they've gone 11-16.

Five days after posting their 81st victory, the Pirates still are seeking No. 82, which will clinch their first winning season since 1992.

“We're not panicking,” said Andrew McCutchen, who had two of the Pirates' three hits. “We've got a lot of ball left. Anything can happen.”

Left-hander Jeff Locke (9-5) dropped his third straight decision. He's winless in eight starts since beating the Reds on July 21. During that stretch, he has a 6.57 ERA and a 2.17 WHIP.

Locke was inefficient and at times seemed to struggle with umpire Larry Vanover's low strike zone. Even so, Locke yielded just three hits and three runs (two earned). Although he needed 51 pitches to get the first nine outs, Locke also posted three scoreless innings.

“There was improvement in a number of different areas,” Hurdle said. “He was able to answer well and put some things back in play that we've seen from him (earlier this season).”

Locke's luck ran out in the fourth. Carlos Beltran drew a five-pitch walk. Yadier Molina whipped a 2-2 pitch into the right field corner for a double. David Freese's sacrifice fly scored Beltran from third.

With two outs, Pete Kozma sent a hard grounder down the third base line. Pedro Alvarez made a fine, tumbling stop but had no chance to get Kozma at first base. Molina scored to make it 2-0.

Locke's first pitch of the fifth inning hit Matt Carpenter. Shane Robinson hit a grounder to shortstop Clint Barmes, who whizzed the ball past second baseman Neil Walker into shallow right field. That put runners on second and third with none out. Matt Holliday's groundout scored Carpenter.

Adam Wainwright (16-9) had absorbed beatings in his previous two starts, both against the Reds. On Saturday, Wainwright was back to being his usual, hard-to-hit self. He gave up McCutchen's two-out single in the first inning, then didn't allow another hit until McCutchen doubled leading off the fourth.

Morneau walked after McCutchen's double — the Pirates' first (and only, as it turned out) threat of the game. But Byrd bounced into a double play, and Alvarez went down swinging on three pitches.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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