PITTSBURGH -- With a four-run lead already shaved in half and slipping further from Shelby Miller's grasp in the fifth, manager Mike Matheny left the dugout steps, his glare toward the mound.
The conversation that followed would be one-sided, the look of a manager nearing a boiling point amid a losing road trip and a season start lacking much positive traction. Matheny's message, as recounted by Miller after the Cardinals' escaped Pittsburgh with a 6-5 win on Sunday night: "You're better than this."
He might as well have been talking to the team.
Miller followed Matheny's visit by getting out of the fifth, the Cardinals' bullpen then doing the same with added dramatics.
After loading the bases with no outs, closer Trevor Rosenthal then untangled himself from the mess to seal a victory that Matheny later said felt like "a walk-off win for us." It allowed the Cardinals to salvage one game from this three-game set at PNC Park, where 32,065 fans attended the ballpark's first-ever Sunday night game and closed a grueling season-opening stretch in which the Cardinals played 26 of 38 games on the road.
They emerge from it a .500 club.
"I don't believe this is a .500 team, and if anybody starts talking like that, we need to re-evaluate," Matheny said. "I just don't think we've found our identity yet. And our identity is what's going to be on the consistent side, and we haven't consistently seen anything yet. We've seen on and off and everything in between."
Sunday's win was a welcome pick-me-up for a club that had already lost two series on a three-city road swing while fighting off a flu bug and an epidemic of hot-then-cold offensive production. The latter was seen on a game-size scale Sunday, as the Cardinals went scoreless for six innings after scoring four times in the first.
Their ability to break that snap -- aided by a key two-strike RBI single from Peter Bourjos -- to plate two in the eighth became essential, because the Pirates were not done chipping away.
The 4-2 lead Miller handed the bullpen narrowed with Pittsburgh's run off Kevin Siegrist in the seventh. Carlos Martinez allowed another in the eighth. Rosenthal inherited a two-run lead, which lasted two batters.
The first four hitters in the ninth reached, before Rosenthal enticed Ike Davis with a first-pitch fastball (he'd pop out to second) and then closed the inning by starting a double play on Jordy Mercer's comeback chopper.
"I think they'd rather me get it done a little quicker," Rosenthal kidded. "The ninth could have characterized the whole game with Shelby, Siegrist, Carlos and myself all battling. We faced adversity well."
"Really," Mercer said, "[if the ball is hit] anywhere but there, we're still playing."
"That was beyond impressive what Trevor was able to do right there at the end to get it back together," added Matheny.
Getting it back together is what Miller seeks to do moving forward. Sunday, it was just survival.
Miller was entrusted with the early lead, and while he ultimately earned his fifth win, it came after an arduous night's work. Miller needed 27 pitches to get through the third inning, one that ended when Jon Jay tracked down Pedro Alvarez's bases-loaded, fly ball near the wall in center field.
An inning later, the Pirates halved their hole by sequencing a walk and home run, two outcomes that have plagued Miller all season. Mercer's home run, his first of his season, was the eighth Miller has allowed. Davis' preceding walk would be one of four Miller issued in 5 1/3 innings, swelling his season total to 27 in 44 2/3 innings.
"It was just an absolute grind today for me," said Miller, who didn't have much of a curveball or cutter to rely upon.
The third of his walks was a leadoff one to Travis Snider in the fifth. Miller followed by going to a 2-0 count against Neil Walker, which drew Matheny out. Miller described what came next as "classic Mike ... spitting the truth. Just trying to get me fired up and get me back in the rhythm, which it did.
"I think that was the turning point in the game."
Miller retired Walker, walked Andrew McCutchen and then garnered the inning-ending outs.
"It was figuring out a way to get him right and figuring out a way to get us through that," Matheny said. "He's a competitor and he loves those big situations, and he knows we were leaning on him right there. Sometimes just little reminders help."
Miller, a 15-game winner and Rookie of the Year finalist a year ago, has yet to produce a dominant start out of his eight this year. None have lasted longer than six innings, and he continues to fight mechanics and elevated pitch counts. Nevertheless, the Cardinals have won five of his last six starts.
"By no means am I pitching great right now," Miller said. "It's almost the opposite of that. But these are games we need to win."
Support for Miller came before he took the mound thanks to a game-changing error by Alvarez. In his attempt to start what could have been an inning-ending double play for starter Charlie Morton, Alvarez sailed his throw over second baseman Walker. That put runners on the corners.
Allen Craig and Yadier Molina followed with consecutive RBI singles. Matt Adams contributed a sacrifice fly. Singles by Jay and Mark Ellis brought the fourth run home. It marked the first time this season that the Cardinals have scored four runs in their opening frame.
"I gave up quite a few hits there, and that can't happen," said Morton, now 2-10 with a 6.11 ERA against the Cardinals. "Maybe a run scores, but I can't let them score four there. I was missing, and I paid for it."
Along with the win, the Cardinals boarded a plane back to St. Louis early Monday morning celebrating the turn of their schedule. Nineteen of the team's next 22 games will come at home.
"Some adversity throughout this first part of the season," Rosenthal said. "The way it's been going, it's definitely good to get a win right now."
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.