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Cardinals lefty Cabrera rebounds with two flawless innings, holds lead from Carpenter's homer in 7-3 victory

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Cardinals Pirates Baseball

The Cardinals' Matt Carpenter, top right, returns to the dugout after hitting a three-run home run off Pirates relief pitcher Duane Underwood Jr. in the sixth inning of a game in Pittsburgh on Friday, April 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

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PITTSBURGH — The Cardinals knew better than to try and script that ideal, serene, vacuum-sealed inning to have Genesis Cabrera make his reentry after the past week’s unsettling outing. They wanted to find the best spot for their young lefty to get the innings he needed to steady himself for the future.

They happened to find them with innings the Cardinals needed steadied now.

In his first appearance since he unleashed two pitches and bruised two Phillies, one in the face, during a frightening moment Wednesday, Cabrera pitched two flawless innings and held firm the Cardinals’ lead from a Matt Carpenter home run.

He helped secure a 7-3 victory against the Pirates on Friday at PNC Park. This was not the wild pitches a nation of rubberneckers saw, from “The Today Show” to kneejerk tweets, but the pitcher they didn’t take time to show. In a reassuring, competent performance, this was the pitcher the Cardinals know, the one they trust. The one who spins what a teammate called a “good banging curveball.”

“To see him come in and just be — him,” manager Mike Shildt said. “Pitch with aggressiveness and trust all of his pitches and let it eat and pitch. He’s a pitcher. He’s morphed into that. And he did it.”

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The Cardinals finished the first month of their season with a win in the style they’ve been searching for and wouldn’t mind repeating for the months ahead.

The identity they spent April trying to find and waiting for that consistency to emerge threaded throughout their win in Pittsburgh. They took a lead with steady pressure early and a couple of RBI doubles from Nolan Arenado. One got caught in the wind and left a fielder flummoxed, but because Tommy Edman didn’t stop running became a 2-0 lead. Tyler O’Neill made it 3-0 with a solo home run over the two bullpens in center fielder.

O’Neill’s 426-foot homer was his eighth against the Pirates. He has more against Pittsburgh in 28 games than he has combined against the other NL Central teams (six) in 73.

“For sure, we were able to scatter some runs on the board,” O’Neill said. “Throwing up some ones here and there is great, keep them on their heels, I guess. We always want to be threatening. Obviously that’s the goal when we’re on the sticks.”

The sustained offense paired with an opportunistic defense that twice caught the Pirates adrift on the basepaths to sink rallies with two double plays.

Those helped starter John Gant (2-2) tiptoe around five walks on cold, windy evening when he felt he “didn’t have a whole lot working for me. Too many free passes, straight up.”

Gant got through five innings and held the Pirates to a single run, scored on a two-out single. All of that was a prelude to Carpenter’s appearance as a pinch-hitter for Gant. For the second time in as many games, Carpenter hit a three-run, pinch-hit homer. He's the first Cardinal to hit a pinch-hit home run on consecutive days, and the first ballplayer in at least a century to have hit three-run homers as a pinch-hitter in back-to-back games.

Carpenter has five pinch-hit home runs in his career, and two of them have come since lunchtime Thursday. Unlike his previous homers this season, this one did not glance off the foul pole or escape a glove on its way out. There was no drama only distance as it sailed above the Pirates.

“The first swing I’ve taken this season that I just knew nobody was going to catch,” Carpenter said.

The two relievers ahead of Cabrera tightened the lead Carpenter more than doubled. Tyler Webb left the bases loaded for rookie Kodi Whitley to figure out, and Whitley, fresh from the alternate-site camp, balked home a run and allowed another to score on a wild pitch. That left the Cardinals with a three-run lead, the middle of the Pirates’ order coming up, and multiple innings for one reliever to cover. The Cardinals didn’t need to find the perfect spot for Cabrera’s return.

The game had given them his spot.

“Spot made sense for him,” Shildt said.

On Wednesday, Cabrera let loose a 97-mph fastball that veered up and in and past Bryce Harper’s hand to drill him in the cheek. Cabrera’s next pitch hit a player in the ribs. The three-batter minimum meant unless he was ejected, Cabrera, who was clearly unnerved by the pitch that hit Harper, had to continue pitching.

No one on the field seemed comfortable. Harper shared on social media that he was fine later that evening, and he spoke at length with Philadelphia reporters Friday, though he was not in the lineup. Harper sent a text message to Cabrera the next day that expressed empathy, according to Shildt. It assured the pitcher he knew the pitch was not on purpose and offered a chance to talk, if Cabrera wanted.

Shildt described the text’s compassion. His next choice to use Cabrera would supply the confidence.

The Cardinals had no concern about pitching Cabrera with the lead, but “part of the equation” was having him face righthanded batter to start, if possible. The Bucs’ lineup complied. The first two batters against Cabrera hit righthanded. He fell behind 2-0 before coming back in the zone for a groundout. The second batter, switch-hitter Bryan Reynolds, saw Cabrera in full. Before striking out on a 79.6 mph curveball — that good, banging curveball — Reynolds was tested with a 95.5-mph fastball and a 87.2-mph changeup.

“Dirty changeup,” Shidt said.

“In that situation it could rattle confidence if you let it happen,” Gant said. “You know, the man, just went out there and did his thing. like nothing ever happened. I thought it was awesome.”

Cabrera retired the first three batters he faced on 10 pitches, six strikes. He went out to cover a second inning and finished it flawless, too. He struck out two batters, bridged a lead to teammate Ryan Helsley, and scored setup men Giovanny Gallegos and Jordan Hicks a break, along with closer Alex Reyes.

It was an assertive outing after an alarming one.

It was a big moment in a game won by little contributions from every corner of the roster.

“It’s how we really think about competing to win,” Shildt said. “To be able to beat the other team in a lot of different ways. Found out ways to contribute in a lot of different ways. The sum of the parts, right?”

Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

dgoold@post-dispatch.com

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