PITTSBURGH — Carlos Beltran's latest postseason homer gave the St. Louis Cardinals a chance to win Sunday. Just as quickly, the resilient Pittsburgh Pirates took that opportunity away.
Pedro Alvarez hit a go-ahead single in the eighth inning minutes after Beltran's solo shot tied the game, and the Pirates beat the Cardinals 5-3 for a 2-1 lead in their best-of-five division series.
Now, the NL Central champions are one loss from a premature playoff exit.
"We've been in this situation," Beltran said. "Last year, I think we were in this situation a lot. So I think we're fine, man. We want to come here tomorrow, we want to win and hopefully take this series home."
Beltran finished 2 for 3 with three RBIs, and his 16th playoff home run moved him past Babe Ruth for eighth place in postseason history. But it wasn't enough to overcome an otherwise-sluggish offense that can't seem to get things going at the quirky ballpark by the Allegheny River.
The Cardinals are 3-8 at PNC Park this year and will send rookie Michael Wacha to the mound in Game 4 on Monday hoping to send the series back to Busch Stadium on Wednesday.
"Right now it hurts," manager Mike Matheny said. "They're going to sit with it for a little while. Tomorrow morning they'll be ready to go."
Beltran's shot temporarily silenced a rocking crowd. It also set the stage for another late rally by the Pirates.
Andrew McCutchen led off the eighth with his second hit, a double to left off losing pitcher Carlos Martinez. But the NL MVP candidate unwisely tried to advance on Justin Morneau's grounder to shortstop and was an easy out at third.
Pinch-runner Josh Harrison replaced Morneau and moved up when Marlon Byrd walked. Matheny turned to lefty Kevin Siegrist to face the left-handed-hitting Alvarez. The Pittsburgh slugger tied for the NL lead with 36 homers in the regular season, but batted just .180 against lefties.
"I just knew it was going to be a tough matchup," Alvarez said. "I've seen him a couple of times before. I haven't had much success. He's a pitcher with good stuff — great stuff. He threw me a couple of fastballs out over the plate."
One too many, as it turned out, and Alvarez grounded a single between first and second to give Pittsburgh the lead.
Matheny wasn't in the mood to second-guess the way Siegrist approached the at-bat.
"Every pitch has a purpose," Matheny said. "Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don't."
Russell Martin fouled off a squeeze bunt, then lined an RBI single to left that made it 5-3. Jason Grilli worked the ninth for a save.
Mark Melancon picked up the win despite serving up Beltran's tying homer in the eighth.
The game was a rare nail-biter between two clubs that spent the summer shadowing each other in the race for the NL Central title. Coming into Sunday, only five of the previous 21 matchups were decided by two runs or less.
After blowouts by each club in St. Louis, there wasn't much room to breathe in front of a frenzied, black-clad crowd looking for a repeat of Pittsburgh's giddy 6-2 romp over Cincinnati in the wild-card game last Tuesday.
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 a generation.
Tony Watson worked around a one-out single in the seventh before giving way to Melancon.
St. Louis must win two straight to advance to the NL championship series for the third straight year.
"Just got to wake up and win tomorrow," infielder Daniel Descalso said. "Just take care of business tomorrow and just worry what happens after that, after that."
Pirates starter Francisco Liriano dominated the Cardinals during the regular season, going 3-0 with an 0.75 ERA in three starts against the NL's highest-scoring team. He was electric against the Reds last Tuesday, shaking off a sinus infection and baffling them with a series of changeups and sliders that ended Cincinnati's season and manager Dusty Baker's tenure.
Liriano narrowly escaped damage in the third Sunday when Matt Holliday lined to right with the bases loaded.
The left-hander wasn't quite as fortunate in the fifth. Jon Jay led off with a single and Pete Kozma followed with a walk. After pitcher 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.
But it wasn't quite enough despite another strong start by the 25-year-old Kelly. The unflappable right-hander welcomed the hostile environment, calling the atmosphere one of the things a kid dreams about.
The reality proved a little more unnerving, at least when Byrd hit a two-run single in the first. Still, Kelly settled down and was steady before running into trouble in the sixth.