A Cardinals sweep in Pittsburgh could be knockout blow of Pirates

The Pirates might be just the right team to help Adam Wainwright escape his 'funk.'

Paul Sancya/AP

With last week’s sweep at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals pretty much ended the Reds’ playoff hopes. Now they have a chance to do the same to the Pirates.

Sweep the three-game series that begins Monday night at Pittsburgh and the Pirates would fall 6 1/2 games behind St. Louis, which is 1 1/2 games behind first-place Milwaukee. Anyone around for 2011 knows a comeback is possible, but deficits of a half-dozen games or more are not often overcome with a month left in the season.

Of course, the odds of a Cardinals sweep aren’t that great. The Pirates own the division’s best home record, they haven’t been swept at PNC Park all season and the Cardinals have lost four straight road series.

But either way, you can expect the games to be tight. Five of their past seven meetings have been decided by one or two runs. Here are three other things to watch:

— Adam Wainwright’s "funk." There is no better team for Wainwright to face than the Pirates as he tries to get his groove back. In three starts against Pittsburgh this year, he’s worked 22 innings and allowed only two runs.

Including his two wins in the National League Division Series last fall, Wainwright is 4-1 with a 1.68 ERA in his past eight starts against the Pirates.

Wainwright told reporters after his failed start in Philly on Friday night that he feels fine physically. A slight drop in velocity, however, indicates that he is not as fine as he was for the first four months. Because Wainwright doesn’t pitch with a 95-mph fastball even when he’s at peak form, his command must be precise and his curveball must be sharp. Neither has been at its best lately. Over his past seven starts, he has allowed more than a hit per inning and has averaged an un-Waino-like 3.5 walks per nine innings.

If he struggles again Wednesday, you can count on hearing talk about whether he should start the playoff opener — if the Cardinals get that far.

— Rookie turnarounds. When these teams last met the week before the All-Star break, the Pirates’ hotshot rookie right fielder, Gregory Polanco, was being talked about as an NL Rookie of the Year candidate while the Cardinals’ hotshot rookie right fielder, Oscar Taveras, was struggling to adjust to a part-time role.

Six weeks later, Polanco has been sent to the minors on the heels of a 1-for-26 slump and Taveras is riding a six-game hitting streak three weeks into taking over right field. Since the Pirates visited St. Louis, Polanco’s batting average has dropped from .287 to .241. Taveras, who was hitting .182 before the Pirates series, has raised his average to a season-best .238.

With the Pirates scheduled to start lefties on Monday and Wednesday, we should get a good indication of how far Mike Matheny believes Taveras has progressed since the Cardinals played at Miami two weeks ago. It will be a surprise if Taveras doesn’t make at least two of the three starts.

— Pirates starters. The Cardinals did not face any of the three starters last month they are scheduled to see this week, with Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke scheduled for Pittsburgh.

Cole, who went on the disabled list when the Pirates were in St. Louis, just returned last week and pitched well in his first start, allowing two runs in seven innings to help the Pirates end a seven-game losing streak.

Locke, who will start Wednesday afternoon, has not pitched against the Cardinals since last year but has had a good month. He is 3-0 with a 3.42 ERA in four starts this month.

After providing the Pirates with a huge boost last year, Liriano has struggled with his health and his command in 2014. He is 3-10 with a 4.18 ERA for the season but had pitched better in the second half, at least until his most recent start. He allowed a season-most nine runs (seven earned) and lasted only four innings in an 11-3 loss to the Braves.

The Pirates looked poised to be buried in the playoff race after that game but rallied by winning three of their past four. That includes taking two of three over the weekend in Milwaukee, where the Brewers couldn’t do what the Cardinals will be out to do this week.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.