Preview: Kelly, Cards look to keep Buccos from extending NL Central lead

The Pittsburgh Pirates have more significant goals than securing their first winning season in two decades, and a victory in their next game would also help them move closer toward accomplishing one of those feats.

While trying for their 82nd win, the Pirates will seek to pad their NL Central lead by getting past red-hot Joe Kelly and the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night in the opener of the final series between the clubs this season.

Pittsburgh (81-58) has already stopped its streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons – the longest in North American professional sports history – but needs one more victory to clinch its first winning campaign since 1992.

That season included the franchise’s most recent division title. The Pirates head into this series with a 1 1/2-game edge over St. Louis (80-60) and three-game advantage on Cincinnati in the Central.

“We are trying to win every day,” center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. “Every game is important from the first to the last. So we don’t treat it any differently from any other game. We go out every day to win. That is what we are going to do in St. Louis.”

The Pirates have won 10 of 16 meetings this season and took two of three at home last weekend. A.J. Burnett (7-9, 3.09 ERA) won the middle game of that series Saturday, allowing one run over seven innings in a 7-1 victory.

“That’s a pretty good lineup, so I’m just trying to keep the ball down, get ahead … then expand the strike zone a bit,” Burnett told the team’s official website. “But you can’t let down against that lineup, because that’s when they get you.”

Burnett is 3-0 with a 2.59 ERA in five starts against St. Louis this season but has a 6.10 ERA in two at Busch Stadium. He gave up five runs in a season-low 4 1/3 innings in a 6-5 loss there Aug. 15.

Burnett will likely need a better outing Friday as he’ll be opposed by Kelly, who is 7-0 with a 2.16 ERA in 10 starts since joining the rotation July 6.

Kelly (7-3, 2.82) is 2-0 with a 0.75 ERA against the Pirates during that stretch, and he gave up one run over six innings in a 7-2 victory in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Kelly’s most recent victory is among only two in the last eight games for St. Louis, and the Cardinals enter this series after dropping three of four in Cincinnati. They’re batting .185 with 17 runs during that 2-6 stretch and had five hits in a 6-2 loss Thursday.

“It’s the time of the season,” manager Mike Matheny said. “There are times when you don’t hit. This has lasted a little longer than you’d like, but that could be a sign that we’re ready to click and take off.”

Allen Craig, who leads St. Louis with 97 RBIs, will likely miss this series because of an ailing foot. The Cardinals, though, caught a break Thursday when X-rays did not reveal a fracture.

Matt Carpenter will try to make up for Craig’s absence by improving his .400 career average (8 for 20) against Burnett. The second baseman is batting .391 (9 for 23) in five games this month and .407 (11 for 27) in his last six matchups with Pittsburgh.

The recently acquired Marlon Byrd is batting .417 in his last seven games against St. Louis.