PITTSBURGH -- When Justin Morneau, the newly minted Pirates player, reached PNC Park in the middle of Saturday night's game, he had to be asking himself one question:
"Really? Why did they need me?"
The Pirates were already leading the Cardinals by six runs in the third inning, on their way to a 7-1 win, on their way to sole possession of first place in the National League Central -- on their way to putting to bed a night that underlined Pittsburgh's baseball renaissance.
A crowd of 39,514, the season's 17th sellout and the second-largest in the yard that opened in 2001, roared as the Pirates ended a 14-14 August and set sail for the September seas.
"We're heading in the right direction," manager Clint Hurdle said. "But we have a long way to go."
The Bucs needed Morneau because not every night, of the 27 regular-season nights remaining, will be as uncomplicated as the one Saturday, when the Pirates fired out seven runs and nine hits off 13-game winner Lance Lynn within three innings.
Celebrating the arrival of fellow Canadian Morneau, Russell Martin launched a three-run homer in the middle of the five-run third that pumped all the air out of the division showdown. With Neal Walker adding three hits and Jose Tabata and Marlon Byrd two each -- and each drove in a run -- the Bucs (79-56) moved a full game ahead of the Cards (78-57).
Any significance? On two counts:
• The 79 matched the Pirates' total wins of last season - -which had matched (1997) the franchise's most successful since the last winner, in 1992.
• And in the first 19 seasons of three-divisional play, the Sept. 1 leader has gone on to raise the NL Central pennant.
While the offensive buffet went on, right-hander A.J. Burnett was silencing the Cardinals in typical Pittsburgh fashion, holding them to four hits and a run in seven innings to pick up his seventh victory.
Getting handed a 7-1 lead by the end of the third could have changed Burnett's mindset, given his run-support track record, but it did not.
"It feels good to hold a lead. Shutdown innings are huge," said Burnett, who dialed up nothing but zeros after the Bucs put up a five-spot in the third. "That's what keeps you in the game. That's a pretty good lineup, so I'm just trying to keep the ball down, get ahead ... then expand the strike zone a bit. But you can't let down against that lineup, because that's when they get you."
Burnett walked one and fanned six in improving his record against the Cardinals to 3-0 with an ERA of 2.58, a fitting inset to Pirates pitching's big picture against St. Louis.
In 15 meetings, Pirates pitchers have held the league's most potent offense to a total of 53 runs, an average of 3.5. But if you think that's impressive, consider the total includes St. Louis eruptions of 9, 10 and 13 runs. Meaning, in the other dozen games, Buccos arms have yielded 21 runs.
Most of that blanket has come out in PNC Park, where in nine games the Cardinals have tallied 31 runs (13 of those in the win that salvaged the finale of the five-game series earlier this month).
"We haven't had much success here," acknowledge Carlos Beltran, who singled in the third for the only run off Burnett but also had a shaky defensive game in right field. "I don't know the reason why. They've just been pitching good. Every time we come here, it seems like every starter that we face seems like he has a good game plan. When you're facing the starter and he's doing everything good, locating pitches, getting everybody out, getting us to chase balls and all that, that's what's going to happen."
Burnett himself had the pleasure of driving in the game's official winning run with a second-inning single that made it 1-0 (the Bucs never trailed, hence the "winning run" qualification) right before Tabata's single made it 2-0.
"A very professional outing by A.J. ... and a big swing to just get things going," Hurdle said. "Then we added, then got the big swing from Russell."
"They were able to scratch two in the second and to go right back and give them five ... that's not very good," Lynn said. "That's unacceptable. This one is on me. [My teammates] fought back to give me a one-run game and I turn around and give them five. That's not very good."
Byrd had already singled to make it 3-1 in the third before Martin unloaded his 13th homer for a 6-1 lead (Beltran had singled for a St. Louis run in the top of the inning). Walker's subsequent RBI triple capped the five-run third.
"With Allen James coming out, that was pretty much all we needed," Martin said. "So it was nice to get those runs on the board."
In the first two games of this pivotal series, the Pirates have outscored St. Louis 12-1, and backed up precise pitching by flashing unerring leather. The crisp play in evidence has been in sharp contrast to the team's style in the preceding series against also-ran Milwaukee.
That can be a precarious predicament: You do want your team to play up to the competition; without, if possible, also playing down to it.
"We have played better. Look at the defensive plays," said Hurdle, who in particular could have pointed to Tabata's roaming catches in left field and a fabulous diving play by Walker at second. "The two-out and two-strike hits. We've talked about what we needed to do, and weren't playing the type of ball we're capable. We needed to get to a better place throughout the game, and we've done that so far in this series."
What they have done in this series is post two convincing victories over the Cardinals while their signature player, Andrew McCutchen, has gone 0-for-9 and struck out five times.
There are two takeaways from that. Indeed, these are not your older brother's Bucs. And, two, Joe Kelly, St. Louis' Sunday starter, can take that as a warning.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.