ST. LOUIS -- Jeff Locke's flashback night gave the Pirates long odds. The Bucs answered with long balls, three of them off a pitcher who had not allowed as many in more than four years.
The retorts were not enough, as the St. Louis Cardinals again lived up to Clint Hurdle's portrayal.
"They are a perfect example of a club that does the best they can with what they have and where they are," the Buccos' skipper had said prior to the beginning of a key three-game series.
And so, on Tuesday night, the Cardinals shrugged off the long-ball assault on Adam Wainwright to hold off the Pirates, 6-4, in front of another Busch Stadium sellout of 43,693.
The win helped the defending National League Central champ Cards double their lead over Milwaukee to two games. The loss did not hurt the Pirates' most accessible target, a Wild Card spot. The Bucs are still only two games behind the Brewers, who own the No. 2 spot.
The biggest hurdle to a postseason return for the Pirates remains: Their record on the home turf of NL Central teams dropped to 11-19 with losses in the first two games of this series.
Those numbers distort the incredibly even competition between the Bucs and the Cards. In the 42 games between the teams since the start of the 2013 season, and including last fall's NL Division Series, the Redbirds lead, 22-20, with a run differential of ... zero. Each teams has plated 169 runs.
The mutual respect is also a dead-heat. Locke, as had Gerrit Cole the day before, saluted his conquerors.
"They have a pretty solid approach all the time," said Locke. "Just a very well-respected organization as a whole. They're always here at the end, and that's where they expect to be."
Only six days earlier, Locke had decisioned Wainwright with a 7 1/3-inning gem in PNC Park, winning, 3-1. The rematch didn't go as cleanly for either.
Locke's five walks -- three of them converted into runs -- in three-plus innings ultimately trumped solo homers by Russell Martin and Jordy Mercer, and a two-run shot by Starling Marte.
"I didn't have any command. I fell behind everybody," Locke said. "I got them in counts where either they got their pitch to hit, or could just take. They were really in the driver's seat the whole time."
After Marte's blow in the top of the seventh brought the Pirates back to within 5-4, they badly needed a shutdown inning to keep momentum. John Axford couldn't deliver it, allowing Jhonny Peralta's leadoff double in the bottom of the inning and eventually turning it into a run on a wild pitch.
"When you give up five [runs] to them early like that with Wainwright on the mound, it makes it difficult, but we battled back within one," Hurdle said.
In two-thirds of his starts this season prior to Tuesday night's, Wainwright allowed fewer than three runs. So when the Cardinals' pitching ace himself has three RBIs before the end of the fourth inning, you know it is not a good night for the guys facing him.
In the first, Locke issued back-to-back walks, more than in eight prior starts. He got away with them, leaving the bases loaded, and left the mound thinking he got a chance for a re-boot.
"Yeah, because usually that's how we do things," Locke said. "Action in the first, then we settle down and keep going. Tonight, I just never got into rhythm, never got the gears going. I fought myself all night, and didn't give us a chance to win at all."
In the fourth, Locke did it again -- and paid for it, both walks coming around to score the first two of the tie-breaking three-run rally.
The solo homers in the second by Martin and in the third by Mercer were neutralized by St. Louis scoring twice in the bottom of the second on outs: Wainwright's infield grounder and Matt Carpenter's sacrifice fly.
Those first two runs had been set up by a Martin passed ball following a Locke walk and Peter Bourjos single.
The Cardinals continued taking advantage of help. Locke's fourth-inning walks of Yadier Molina and Daniel Descalso were cashed in, the first on Bourjos' single and the second as part of Wainwright's two-run single.
"That's awesome," Bourjos said of Wainwright's three RBIs -- doubling his prior season total. "I feel like everybody is producing on any given day. We're getting contributions from top to bottom in the lineup."
"He's one of the best hitting pitchers there is," Locke said of Wainwright. "You can't treat him like a pitcher whatsoever. He's a tremendous athlete. He's phenomenal."
Marte's two-run shot in the seventh chased Wainwright in the wake of his first three-homer game since June 24, 2010, in an Interleague game at Toronto.
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.