ST. LOUIS – The Cardinals were two outs away from entering Friday’s series opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates tied with the visitors for the second Wild Card spot in the National League.
Two pitches and two home runs off Jason Motte later, the Cardinals suffered a devastating ninth inning defeat Thursday night that instead dropped them to one game behind the Pirates as the two get set to tango this weekend at Busch Stadium.
But the loss does nothing to diminish the importance of the next three games.
In a series that some are calling the biggest between the two teams in 20 years, the Cardinals hope to move past Thursday’s heartbreaking loss and work towards putting themselves back in a playoff spot with 44 games left to play.
“We have to come in tomorrow and turn the page real quick,” said first baseman Allen Craig after Thursday’s loss. “Pittsburgh has a lot of talent – a lot of young players, good pitching staff and bullpen. We know it’s a big series, but our motto has kind of been to take it one game at a time. We’ll go out there and give it our best shot.”
Pittsburgh arrives in town losers of seven of their past 10 games as they cling to a one-game lead for the second Wild Card spot. The Cardinals hold a slight 5-4 advantage in nine meetings this year but the teams are 3-3 in six games played in St. Louis.
While the Cardinals are still technically alive in the N.L. Central race at seven games behind the Cincinnati Reds, reaching the playoffs as a Wild Card seems much more attainable. And this weekend could have a big say in what ultimately happens down the stretch.
No scoreboard watching the next few days. No more worrying about what the Pirates are doing. The Cardinals know each win means a game picked up in the standings. And they hope to take advantage of it.
“Pittsburgh is playing good,” said outfielder Carlos Beltran. “Last time they were here they swung the bat well and played good defense and pitched good. That’s why they are where they are because they are playing good baseball.
“The goal is to be in the playoffs, no matter if it’s through the division or the wild card, that’s the goal.”
But the Pirates won’t have ace A.J. Burnett available to them this weekend after he won his 15th game of the season on Thursday afternoon against the Dodgers. James McDonald, who is 1-2 with a 8.71 ERA in his last six starts, will take the ball for Pittsburgh Friday night in the opener.
The Cardinals won’t have their two best starters either. Adam Wainwright pitched Wednesday and Kyle Lohse was the tough-luck loser Thursday, meaning both won’t appear until the Cardinals series against Houston early next week.
Admitting there was “all kinds of hype” surrounding the battle between the two playoff contenders, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said he declined to rework the rotation to try and have his big guns going against the Pirates because, “we have to win every game. That’s how we see it. Doesn’t matter who it’s against.
“Keep it simple. Simple is play good tonight no matter who is out there. We want these guys knowing when it’s their day they are the most important guy on our planet. That can carry you a long way. Keep the focus on here and now.”
The Cardinals will open the series with veteran Jake Westbrook, who is 7-2 with a 2.88 ERA in his last ten starts dating back to the middle of June. Lance Lynn (13-5, 3.65 ERA) will start for St. Louis on Saturday while lefty Jaime Garcia will return from the disabled list for his first appearance in two months on Sunday.
Pittsburgh will counter with lefty Eric Bedard (7-12, 4.56 ERA) on Saturday and Jeff Karstens (4-3, 3.91 ERA) in the series finale on Sunday. Pittsburgh starters have posted a 6.79 ERA during their current 3-7 skid.
The Cardinals hope to continue to feast off home cooking. They are an impressive 19-6 at home since July 1. They are 17-9 overall since July 19.
But with the focus being on the Cardinals and Pirates battle for the second Wild Card spot, Matheny said before Thursday’s game that his team’s goal should still be to track down the Reds and win the division.
“That extra spot is nice to fight for, but right now think it would be the wrong focus for this team,” Matheny said. “We’ve just got to put our head down and keep playing. One of our goals start of season to win the Central Division and we’re not backing off that. We’re all about winning as many games as we can.
“I’d hate to think we just kind of throw in the towel and say we’re not going to keep chasing the Central Division. The wild card spot is different this year – no lock when you get one of those two spots. We’ve been very good about keeping on task, controlling what we can control. Nothing wrong with having goals and when you win, you win your division and that’s something we haven’t lost sight of.”
Regardless of which race the Cardinals decide to focus on, they have a golden chance to overtake Pittsburgh and move into a playoff spot this weekend. And last year’s World Series Champions know a thing or two about what can happen if you win the Wild Card.