Preview: Cards look to avoid five-game sweep
Even after Thursday night's finale of a five-game series, the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates will play nine more times over the season's final two months.
If it were up to the Pirates, they'd probably prefer to get those in right now.
Pittsburgh looks to become the first team in nearly a century to sweep the Cardinals in a five-game series as it heads into August trying to grab a 3 1/2-game lead atop the NL Central.
The Cardinals (62-44) led the Pirates by 2 1/2 games on July 26, but six days later it's Pittsburgh (65-42) that has a 2 1/2-game cushion and the best record in baseball.
The Pirates held St. Louis to three total runs in winning three times Monday and Tuesday, but the Cardinals' offense briefly came to life Wednesday. After scoring four times on 10 hits in the first four innings, though, St. Louis was held to three hits the rest of the way as Pittsburgh rallied to win 5-4.
It enters August 23 games above .500 for the first time since 1972.
"We can win just about every way possible," manager Clint Hurdle said.
A Pirates win Thursday would complete the first sweep of the Cardinals in a series of at least five games since the New York Giants took six in September 1916. Pittsburgh's last five-game sweep came against the San Francisco Giants in September 1996.
The Pirates have the Cardinals on the verge of their first eight-game skid since September 2007, and they've won six straight in this series for the first time since 1992 -- the franchise's last winning season. Pittsburgh has outscored St. Louis 36-10 in that stretch, pounding out 23 extra-base hits to the Cardinals' seven.
St. Louis hasn't homered in those six games and has hit just one in 13 contests since the All-Star break.
The Cardinals have only hit four homers in the 11 games Charlie Morton (3-2, 3.59 ERA) has started against them, but they've been productive in many other ways. The right-hander is 2-7 with a 6.17 ERA against St. Louis, though he has a 3.18 ERA in five starts in the series at PNC Park.
Allen Craig is 7 for 12 against Morton, yet the majors' best hitter with runners in scoring position (.465) isn't exactly thriving at the plate right now. His first-inning single Wednesday broke an 0-for-23 skid, but he went hitless in his final four at-bats.
Matt Carpenter got the night off Wednesday in the midst of a 2-for-24 road trip, while All-Star catcher Yadier Molina was placed on the disabled list with a strained right knee.
"There's something we're not doing, and we know we're not doing it and fixing it," manager Mike Matheny said.
Morton has allowed 18 baserunners over 11 2/3 innings in his last two starts, but has won them both. He gave up four runs and nine hits over five innings Saturday in a 7-4 victory at Miami.
He'll be opposed by Joe Kelly (1-3, 3.44), who earned himself another shot at St. Louis' very vacant No. 5 starter spot with an impressive outing Saturday in Atlanta. The right-hander held the Braves scoreless for 6 1/3 innings in the Cardinals' 2-0 loss.
"Very, very impressive," Matheny said. "It was maybe the best I've ever seen him throw. Everything. His aggressiveness, his slider, breaking ball, changeup; all of them were as good as I've seen."
Kelly is 0-2 with a 6.43 ERA in five games -- one start -- against the Pirates. He gave up four runs and three hits - including a two-run homer to Russell Martin - while getting just one out in relief during a 5-3 loss April 27.
Pittsburgh left fielder Starling Marte has hit safely in all 11 career games against St. Louis, posting a .444 on-base percentage.