(AP) — The St. Louis Cardinals know they have no margin for error if they are to keep their fading hopes of winning the NL Central alive.
With the way they’ve played against non-contenders, even six remaining games versus the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t look like a sure thing.
The Cardinals desperately need to pull off a three-game sweep of the majors’ worst team starting Tuesday night at PNC Park, where the Pirates try to avoid moving to the brink of their first 100-loss season since 2001.
Cincinnati is a below-.500 team in September, but St. Louis (77-72) has made sure the Reds still have a comfortable division lead. The Cardinals have lost 23 of 35, dropping all seven series against teams with losing records.
St. Louis is 9-5 against winning clubs in that stretch and took three of four from San Diego over the weekend. But it blew a chance to pick up more momentum in Monday’s makeup game at Florida, where Brad Davis’ second-inning grand slam off Chris Carpenter was the difference in the Marlins’ 4-0 win.
“(Carpenter) wasn’t perfect in that one inning and they get four runs,” manager Tony La Russa said. “That shouldn’t be enough to beat us.”
The Cardinals are 6-3 against the Pirates (51-98), but they dropped two of three in Pittsburgh from Aug. 23-25. Pirates rookie Neil Walker drove in six runs to help his team win the final two meetings.
Walker continued his impressive second half over the weekend, homering twice and driving in five to engineer a sweep of Arizona. The second baseman hit a two-run shot in the eighth inning Sunday to lift Pittsburgh to a 4-3 win.
“There’s a lot to play for this month,” Walker told the Pirates’ official website. “It’d be easy to pack it in and call it a season in these last couple weeks, but I think everybody feels like it’s very important for us to kind of form as a team because, obviously, this time of year it’s a tough go.”
It’s been a particularly tough second half for Paul Maholm (7-15, 5.36 ERA), who is 2-9 with a 7.07 ERA in his last 14 starts. The left-hander surrendered seven runs – two earned – over 3 2-3 innings Wednesday in an 8-7 loss to the Mets.
Maholm is 3-4 with a 3.41 ERA in 12 starts versus St. Louis, with Albert Pujols going 15 for 21 against him since 2008. Matt Holliday is 2 for 16 lifetime against Maholm, but both hits were homers.
The Cardinals will give the ball to Jake Westbrook (2-3, 3.26), who has received little run support since coming over from Cleveland but didn’t need much Thursday. The right-hander used his sharp sinker to hold the Padres to six hits over eight innings in a 4-0 win.
“When I get ground balls, I feel like I’m doing my job,” Westbrook said. “This was the first zero I put up in a long time. It feels good.”
Westbrook gave up four runs over six innings in a 5-2 loss at Pittsburgh on Aug. 25.
By BRETT HUSTON,