Cards enter 13-game stretch against Reds, Pirates with edge

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Something that hasn’t happened very often in the NL Central this season happened Sunday. The Cardinals, Pirates and Reds all lost.

It won’t happen again for a while, either. Because the Cardinals face nobody but the Reds or Pirates in their next 13 games, at least one of the three division front-runners is guaranteed to win every day all three teams are playing.

While all three clubs enter the stretch with a firm grip on a playoff berth, the stay will be short for whichever one is unfortunate enough to lose the wild-card game. So yes, winning the division means more than ever, which makes this stretch of three games against the Reds followed by three at Pittsburgh and four at Cincinnati before returning home for three against the Pirates as important as any the Cardinals will play until the postseason.

Once the Cardinals are through with the Reds and Pirates, they will have 19 games left. Twelve will be played at home; none will be played against another contender. Based on the standings today, only one team they’ll play — the Nationals — has even a .500 record.

The Reds and Pirates, meanwhile, will meet each other in six of their final nine games. The Pirates also have three games at AL West-leading Texas while the Reds still have three games left against the first-place Dodgers and a three-city road trip.

So give the schedule advantage to the Cardinals. Who rates the edge in two other key areas? Well, let’s just say the Cardinals sit in the best position of the three clubs.

Let’s have a look.

Health

The Reds are missing their No. 1 starter, Johnny Cueto, who has been dealing with a lat strain most of the season. The Reds remain hopeful of a Cueto return, but he isn’t much closer than when he went on the disabled list June 29. This time a month ago, the Reds were saying that lefty reliever Sean Marshall would be back soon and he’s still out. They also just lost hard-throwing righty reliever Jonathan Broxton for the season, too, and promising rookie Tony Cigrani, who had taken over for Cueto in the rotation, went on the DL on Sunday because of back stiffness. The lefty was scheduled to start Sunday so he would not have pitched against the Cardinals this week.

The offensively challenged Pirates will be without their up-and-coming leadoff hitter, Starling Marte, for at least 13 more days after he landed on the DL on Saturday because of a bruised hand. It’s been more than a month since All-Star closer Jason Grilli walked off the mound with forearm pain, yet he’s still weeks away from a return. Although the Pirates’ rotation has been a strength, it would be even more of one with Wandy Rodriguez (forearm). Until last week, the club was looking for him to return but when a simulated game did not go well, he scheduled a visit with Dr. James Andrews for this week.

For the Cardinals, backup catcher Tony Cruz (arm) and starter Jake Westbrook (back) are on the DL but their absences should not be difficult to overcome. As long as Yadier Molina’s right knee doesn’t start bothering him too much, Cruz wouldn’t be playing much, anyway. The way Westbrook was struggling, he was not a lock to stay in the rotation even before he was put on the DL. Closer Edward Mujica has been feeling enough discomfort behind his right shoulder that he was unavailable much of last week but he came in Saturday and picked up a one-out save.

So give the Cardinals the health advantage, too, as long as they don’t lose Molina again.

Momentum

With four consecutive series wins, the Cardinals earn the edge in this area, too. They clearly have left behind their struggles of a 4-13 skid that included losing four of five in Pittsburgh. Their offense leads the NL in runs this month — and for the season — and the rookie relievers continue to impress. The rotation, however, poses somewhat of a concern, though Joe Kelly, Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller all were impressive in beating the Braves.

Although the Reds have lost eight of 12 to the Cardinals this season, Cincinnati does have the best record in August of the three contenders, 14-8 to 14-10 for St. Louis. Ryan Ludwick’s return has added a right-handed bat the Reds were missing. After going hitless in his first five games back, Ludwick has gone 9 for 21 and hit his first homer Saturday. Right-hander Mat Latos has stepped up in a big way with a 3-1 record and 0.89 ERA this month.

The Pirates, at 11-12 this month after Sunday’s 5-1 loss at San Francisco, have been caught by the Cardinals in the division and passed by the Braves in the race for best record in the NL. Pittsburgh’s problem has been its offense. The Pirates are averaging fewer than four runs a game this month with three regulars — Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones and Clint Barmes — hitting less than .200 in August.

But the Pirates are heading home after a week on the West Coast, and only the Braves in the NL have a better home record. Six wins shy of its first winning season since 1992, Pittsburgh would like nothing more than to be playing at home for win No. 82, but for that to happen the Pirates need a 6-0 homestand. After three against the Brewers, they play three against the Cardinals this weekend.

So in addition to their schedule advantage, the Cardinals have health and momentum on their side as well.