"That's the great thing about what we're going through," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, finding positives in the little tailspin. "This is playoff-atmosphere baseball, played against a very good club. Challenges come with that opportunity, and it will sharpen us for what's in front of us."
Behind them are two extra-inning losses to St. Louis wrapped around Francisco Liriano's four-hitter. For the Cardinals, their gain in confidence may have been more significant than the one game they gained in the standings.
Until Tuesday night's opener of this three-game set, the Cards had neither overcome a deficit as large as three runs for a win, nor celebrated a bona fide walk-off hit. Now they have done both twice in three days.
Matt Holliday decided the teams' latest extended battle of pitches, wills and nerves with a lined one-out single off Bryan Morris in the third extra inning.
Matt Carpenter, a thorn in the Pirates' side all afternoon with four hits, began the winning rally by drawing a full-count walk with one out off Morris.
"Like with everyone else, I tried to force weak contact from him," Morris said of Carpenter. "He did a good job laying off some pitches that started in the zone, so my hat's off to him for not swinging."
Jon Jay dribbled a 16-hopper into right for a base hit that sent Carpenter to third and brought Holliday to the plate.
"It's obviously frustrating when you try to get contact and get a grounder that finds a hole," Morris said. "Would I have liked it if it had gone to the first baseman or the second baseman? Yeah, of course. But that's baseball, and that's part of being a reliever -- you get the bad end of the stick sometimes.
"And that last pitch [to Holliday] ... it caught more of the plate than I wanted. That's about it."
The Pirates' 16th extra-inning game of the season ended pretty much as No. 15 did on Tuesday night after 14 innings, with the Cardinals rushing out of their first-base dugout to celebrate a big win.
Russell Martin drew the Pirates even with a leadoff homer in the eighth off Trevor Rosenthal's 97-mph fastball, erasing the 5-4 lead the Cardinals had since chasing A.J. Burnett with a five-run fifth.
Burnett and St. Louis starter Lance Lynn ruled for four innings, swapping zeroes, setting the tone and keeping things quiet.
And, suddenly, the fifth became a landmark inning, as the Bucs hit for the cycle to take a 4-0 lead in the top of the inning, and then the Cardinals batted around in the bottom to erase it.
Garrett Jones hit a leadoff single that was cashed in by Andrew Lambo's first Major League hit, a double rifled up the right-center alley. Lambo scored when Clint Barmes followed with his third home run of the year.
"It felt nice. Good to get the first one out of the way," Lambo said of ending his career-starting 0-for-7 slump. "Definitely a rally-starter. We had some things going, and it felt real good to finally contribute."
One out later, Starling Marte tripled to center -- becoming the Bucs' first 10-10-10 (doubles, triples, homers) player since Jack Wilson in 2004. Then Neil Walker followed with a sacrifice fly, making it 4-0.
But two days after coming back from a three-run deficit for the first time all season in a win, the Cardinals went to work on overcoming a four-run hole.
Here was the St. Louis chain-gang offense at its most relentless: Matt Adams single -- David Freese double -- Daniel Descalso two-run single -- Carpenter RBI triple -- Jay game-tying single -- Holliday go-ahead double. Exit Burnett, reeled from a hopeful shutdown inning to a breakdown.
"As good as it looked earlier," said Burnett, who needed only 27 pitches to get through the first three innings, "it's never easy against this group, and they figured me out early. They fought off some good pitches, and were able to hit the ones after that. They hung in there, battled the whole time."
Burnett fell silent for a beat, then added, "You can't let a team come back like that. As good as these guys are, it doesn't matter ... you got to put your foot down at some point."
In his 4 1/3 innings -- his shortest start since, yes, that infamous 2 2/3-inning, 12-run start here on May 2, 2012 -- Burnett was charged with five runs on eight hits and a walk with four strikeouts.
Lynn endured an inning longer, departing with one out in the sixth after yielding his eighth hit. He'd given up four runs, with a walk and six strikeouts. If his line was similar to Burnett's, so were his issues with the opposing lineup.
"[They're] very good at working the counts," Lynn said of the Pirates. "Kind of picking out what you do in a certain count and going after a certain pitch at a certain time, and when they get it, they usually don't miss. [In the fifth] I threw bad pitches. It was to a couple guys that can drive the ball and they drove the ball."
Having both starters leave about the same time and turning the game into a bullpen battle normally works in the favor of the Pirates, and their unyielding Shark Tank of relievers.
The Pittsburgh bullpen -- Vin Mazzaro, Justin Wilson, Tony Watson for three innings, and Morris in the 11th -- held out with its usual scoreless work for seven innings. Ultimately, however, it was only style points, helping neither in the final score, nor in the standings.