PITTSBURGH - This was the baseball gods' way of reminding the Pirates they do not live in a perfect world. Just when everything seems to be going your way -- and a carload of fresh players for sure are coming your way -- you drive over an oil slick and spin out.
Kris Johnson, the 28-year-old rookie left-hander given a golden assignment on Sunday afternoon, was line-drived into quick submission by the Cardinals, who went on to a 7-2 victory in front of a PNC Park sellout crowd of 37,912, and climbed back into a first-place tie with the Bucs atop the National League Central.
Who won the series? The Bucs, by taking two of three? Not really. The winners were Pittsburgh and its fans, 115,532 of whom filled PNC Park, lifted the Pirates and impressed even the visitors.
"This place is unreal when they pack it out," said Cardinals third baseman David Freese. "It has that playoff environment a little bit. You can tell they love playing here. To come out in a day game after two tough losses and score early, that's what we wanted to do."
The teams will now take separate paths -- the Pirates in Milwaukee for three days, the Redbirds in Cincinnati for four -- before reuniting next weekend in St. Louis for one final regular-season dance.
"The situation … we had a chance to go two-up … the anticipation. Maybe there were a little more nerves," Johnson said softly.
Making his starting debut in his second Major League appearance, Johnson faced 15 batters in two-plus innings. Seven of them got hits, two of them walked, five of them scored.
This was not the Johnson the Bucs and their fans had a seen two weeks ago, when as Pittsburgh's last available pitcher he put up five extra-inning zeros against Arizona before taking the loss in the 16th.
Ominously, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had noted before the game that drawn-out affairs such as those may not give you a good read on a pitcher because "when it's late, guys swing big trying to hit home runs."
"Maybe there were a little more nerves than last time," Johnson conceded. "From the bullpen, you're in the game all of a sudden. Getting ready to start, the anticipation builds up."
Cardinals right-hander Joe Kelly put the big early lead to good use, blanking the Bucs on two hits for five innings before two more hits in the sixth, his final inning, netted a run.
St. Louis had the right right-hander going in the "emergency" following losses in the first two games of this series: five of Kelly's seven wins have followed Cardinals defeats.
"They got the momentum off the mound that we had the last two games," Hurdle said. "Kelly has been a stopper for them for a month and a half. He was able to add enough to the fastball, and change speeds, to keep us off the plate and off the bases."
In his own debut with the Pirates, first baseman Justin Morneau went 1-for-3 with a walk, while fellow newbie Marlon Byrd went 2-for-3 and also drove in the Bucs' first run. Byrd scored the club's second run on John Buck's RBI single in the ninth.
Johnson got no settling-in time. His second pitch of the game was smacked to center for a double by Matt Carpenter, and from that point on the lefty was in duress. RBI singles by Allen Craig and Yadier Molina were followed by Jon Jay's sacrifice fly for a 3-0 lead.
"From what I'd seen of him, watching tape, his control was awesome," said Buck, who naturally caught him for the first time. "Obviously, it wasn't on point today, and it hurt us. It's a little too early for me to say he was too excited or what.
"We didn't do ourselves any favors by falling behind, then forcing a couple of pitches got him in trouble. With a team like that, you can't make any mistakes, they'll capitalize on it, and that's what they did."
Having the Cardinals get a 3-0 jump in the first inning was definitely a bad sign. They thus got the first score for only the fourth time in the 16 games between the teams -- and the first three had led to 10-6, 9-1 and 13-0 romps. Now add this 7-2 score. Yet the Bucs lead the season series, 10-6, so longtime Pirates fans might see a reflection of the 1960 World Series in that log.
This game took a turn in that direction -- and Johnson took a turn off the mound toward the dugout -- in the third when Freese doubled for two runs and a 5-0 edge.
Compounding the disappointment of Johnson's showing, Jeanmar Gomez, who had been the leading alternative to get the start, relieved him with none out in the third and went to pitch three hitless innings.
Thereafter, Matt Holliday spanked a two-run single off lefty Justin Wilson in the sixth.
Taking this game in stride had to be an impossible task for Johnson: You're 28, you've toiled in the Minors for 206 games, eight years and two organizations. And you make your first big league start on Sept. 1 for a team with a one-game lead in a pennant race? How do you not feel the weight?
"This is a situation you want to be put in, I just didn't take advantage when I got the chance," Johnson whispered. "I worked all my life to get here … to fall short today … "
Hurdle had counted on Johnson's Dominican Republic winter ball experiences to help allay any anxieties.
As the manager had reasoned before the game, "He's pitched a lot of games in front of 20,000 and 30,000 people."
Thirty thousand in Escogido must be less intimidating than 37,912 in The Golden Triangle.
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.