ST. LOUIS -- Thirty-six evenly played innings had passed in a three-game series. Both teams had scored nine times. Their hit totals were apart by only one. Neither club had gone deep.
Pedro Alvarez's 19th-inning homer, coming in his eighth plate appearance of the day, not only changed that separation, it delivered one of the biggest blows the Cardinals have endured this season. More than six hours after Jaime Garcia threw his first pitch since June 5, St. Louis endured a 6-3 loss at Busch Stadium to a team it was attempting to tie in the standings.
"An emotional day," Skip Schumaker labeled it.
"I don't know if it could be any more disappointing," added manager Mike Matheny. "I don't know how else to say it."
Ensuring the effects of it don't linger is now the critical task. And it'll be easier if Garcia's start is not solely relegated to a footnote.
Long before reliever Barret Browning was peppered with 19th-inning hits, Garcia delivered a start that Matheny characterized as the left-hander's sharpest this season. Numbers back up the assessment.
After a 64-game stay on the disabled list, Garcia's biggest blunder came in his attempt to field his position. He established a new career-high with 10 strikeouts, the last one coming vs. the final batter Garcia faced in the eighth. The strikeouts accrued early, too, putting to rest apprehension about how he'd perform after the layoff.
"I was surprised how well he pitched," noted Carlos Beltran. "Normally when you've been on the DL for a long time, it's kind of hard with the adrenaline. You sometimes try to do too much. But he was under control and pitched a good game."
To have Garcia carry the Cardinals through eight innings was largely unexpected. He had thrown 93 pitches and made it through only the fifth inning of his final Minor League tune-up. He had pitched past the sixth in only five of his 11 starts before his shoulder injury.
"When something physical is not right, you can't really be yourself," Garcia said. "I feel like a different guy."
Garcia, though, did muff a pair of potential outs, which cost him the two-run lead Beltran had provided with a fourth-inning double.
After not fielding a chopper to his right to lead off the sixth, Garcia couldn't cleanly field a sacrifice bunt. Both runners reached. Both eventually scored.
"Before I even got to the play, I was already trying to throw it," Garcia said. "I have to make that play, especially with the pitcher. It's an easy out."
Garcia was effective enough to get out of that inning and efficient enough to breeze through the next. He then retired the Pirates in order in the eighth and became the first Cardinals lefty since Rick Ankiel in 2000 to finish a start with 10 strikeouts and no walks.
"That was as good as we've seen him this year," Matheny said. "That was a great sign."
Pirates pitcher Jeff Karstens matched Garcia through seven innings, a sign of what was to come as both teams stretched their staffs. Pittsburgh needed six relievers -- and Monday's scheduled starter, Wandy Rodriguez -- to cover its final 12 innings. St. Louis utilized its entire seven-man bullpen.
Especially critical were the 5 2/3 innings pitched by Joe Kelly, who was trumped as Sunday's starter by Garcia. Fully rested from throwing 97 pitches in a start on Tuesday, Kelly threw 87 on Sunday.
"The first couple of innings I was like, 'All right, let's see what happens,'" Kelly said. "I started settling in and I was thinking, 'OK, I've got to take this like a normal start.'"
He utilized a sensational catch by center fielder Jon Jay to push the 2-2 game into the 17th, when trouble began bubbling. A wild pitch, intentional walk and errant slider that plunked Clint Barmes loaded the bases for the Pirates.
Left-hander Marc Rzepczynski stepped in to face left-handed hitter Garrett Jones, whose two-out squibbler evaded Rzepczynski's reach. The go-ahead run scored.
The Cardinals, though, scored themselves in the bottom half of the frame, capitalizing on the fact that the Pirates had already used closer Joel Hanrahan. Reliever Juan Cruz gave up consecutive leadoff singles. Tony Cruz, the last player on the bench, delivered the game-tying sacrifice fly.
"Guys played hard. They did," Matheny said. "They fought. I'm proud of how they went about it."
But that was the final answer the Cardinals would have on a day when their offense went 11-for-68 and 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. Daniel Descalso and David Freese each stranded four baserunners. Schumaker left on six. The team left two runners on in the 17th and another two in the 18th.
An inability to send what remained of an announced crowd of 43,412 off celebrating caught up to the club in the 19th. An inning that haunted the Pirates in 2011 tilted with Alvarez's one-out solo homer.
"You get to a point, once you pass 15 innings, you're like delirious," said Alvarez, who has four homers and 14 RBIs against the Cardinals this year. "It's nice to get a jolt of energy."
Three more hits followed, giving the Pirates their first lead of more than two runs in the series.
"It doesn't get much worse," said Browning, who, a day earlier, had earned his first Major League win. "Everybody did their job except me. I don't think I've ever been this disappointed."
The Cardinals went quietly in the bottom of the evening. A total of 574 pitches were thrown. The game, in terms of innings, was the longest in the Majors this year.
"A loss is a loss, but when you grind out there for 19 innings, I think it hurts a little more," Descalso said. "We just didn't come out on top."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.