Preview: Cards hope to hold on to lead in Pittsburgh series

BY foxsports • July 29, 2013

Nipping at the heels of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, the Pittsburgh Pirates hope they're catching the division leaders at the right time.

The top two teams in the NL open a pivotal five-game, four-day series Monday night at PNC Park.

"I think the Cardinal series has been on a lot of the fans' dockets for some time now," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "I anticipate seeing a very faithful Pirate crowd there Monday."

St. Louis (62-40) holds a 1 1/2-game division lead over Pittsburgh, but was held to three runs while being swept in a three-game set at Atlanta over the weekend. The Cardinals, who lead the NL with 498 runs, a .274 average and won 12 of 15 prior to facing the East-leading Braves, last dropped four in a row Aug. 28-31.

"You never want to go into a place and get swept," losing pitcher Shelby Miller said after Sunday's 5-2 defeat. "We were battling the whole time. I don't think we had a terrible series, we just didn't come out on top in any of the games."

Pittsburgh (61-42), however, lost three of the final four on a 5-5 trip that concluded with two of three losses at lowly Miami. The Pirates have struck out 62 times in five games, including 13 in Sunday's 3-2 loss to the Marlins.

Pittsburgh has won three of five against St. Louis this season but the teams have not met since April. They'll play a doubleheader Tuesday to make up an April 16 rainout.

Hurdle will hand the ball to Francisco Liriano (10-4, 2.23 ERA), who allowed two hits and struck out eight over 7 2-3 scoreless innings in Wednesday's 4-2 win at Washington. The left-hander bounced back after he gave up a season-high five runs in 4 1/3 innings of a 5-3 loss at Cincinnati in his previous start.

"He's dotting up the fastball," Hurdle told the Pirates' official website. "He can throw the slider, the changeup off the same arm angle, same release spot for those variances of speed. He really controls bat speed well. He stays out of the middle of the plate."

Liriano's only previous appearance against the Cardinals came in 2009 for Minnesota when he allowed two runs in seven innings of a 6-2 victory.

St. Louis counters with Jake Westbrook (7-4, 2.95), who looks for a third straight winning start but is 0-5 with a 7.24 ERA as a starter at PNC Park. However, the right-hander allowed six hits and struck out six in six scoreless innings but the Cardinals blew a 2-0 lead in a 5-3 home loss to the Pirates on April 27.

Westbrook has pitched into the seventh inning in all four July starts, most recently Wednesday when he gave up three runs in an 11-3 rout of Philadelphia.

"I'm a pitcher, that's what I do," Westbrook said. "I was able to throw the ball pretty well and give us a chance."

Pittsburgh All-Star Pedro Alvarez is 12 for 21 with two doubles and two homers against Westbrook. He's batting .296 while hitting safely in seven straight games after going 0 for 17 in his previous four.

St. Louis' Carlos Beltran is 3 for 23 in his last six games, but batting .300 (6 for 20) with two doubles, two home runs and five RBIs against the Pirates this season.

Teammate and fellow All-Star Allen Craig has hit .313 with six RBIs in four contests versus Pittsburgh in 2013. However, he's 0 for 13 with six strikeouts in four overall following a nine-game stretch in which he batted .421.