September 6-8 – Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals

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With 22 games (15 home, 7 away) remaining in the Cardinals regular season schedule, this table tells all that you need to know about the importance of this upcoming series.

Team Wins Losses Pct Games Back
Pittsburgh 81 58 .583
St. Louis 80 60 .571 1 1/2
Cincinnati 79 62 .560 3

Coming off a rough 2-5 road trip through Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the Cardinals managed to hold on to second place thanks to similar struggles by both the Pirates and Reds.  Over the last 10 games, the standings have changed by only a single game.  All three teams are showing signs of weariness, but some last minute post-season deadline acquisitions by the Pirates have given them a much needed spark.

piratesFor the Pirates, they find themselves in first place in the National League Central in September and their next win will be an important milestone.  Their 4-3 victory over the Brewers last Tuesday finally ended their string of losing seasons that dates back to 1992.  But 81 wins is not a winning season, just yet.  I am sure that they would love to record that important victory in St. Louis, adding to the statement they made last week as they beat up the Cardinals in Pittsburgh.

cardinalsFor the Cardinals, this will be the last time they will face either of the NL Central contenders, and will only play one team with a winning record in the final six series (Washington in St. Louis).  A series win against the Pirates could be the catalyst the Cardinals need to shake off this recent funk and head into the playoffs with some momentum.  That has been the key to their success in the last two World Championship seasons (2006, 2011) and it will be again if Mike Matheny’s squad wants to duplicate some of that past October magic.

Probable Pitchers

Friday, September 6 – 7:15pm CDT

Joe Kelly (7-3, 2.82) vs AJ Burnett (7-9, 3.09)

In five previous starts against St. Louis, the Pirates veteran right hander has three wins and he will be seeking his fourth in the series opener.  The two teams have split his two no-decisions.  Burnett has been great in his last three starts, pitching at least seven innings, including his last start, which was against the Cardinals.  If you are looking for a word to describe his season, it would be steady.

For Kelly, that word would be stopper as he has become the only dependable starter over the last two months.  He is 2-1 against the Pirates in a pair of starts and three relief appearances.  For Kelly, the key will be to go deeper into his starts.  In only one has he pitched into the seventh inning.  Even with the expanded roster, the Cincinnati series tore up the bullpen, so a long outing in the series opener would be most welcome.

This one is too close to call, but should be a pitcher’s duel.  What a great matchup to start the series.

TV: Fox Sports Midwest, ROOT Sports

Saturday, September 7 – 6:15pm CDT

Adam Wainwright (15-9, 3.14) vs Jeff Locke (9-4, 3.22)

Since a 128 pitch complete game win against Atlanta, Adam Wainwright has struggled in his last 2 starts.  In 8 innings of work, he has allowed 15 runs and given up 3 home runs.  He is no longer commanding the strike zone, so his strikeouts have fallen off sharply as has his ability to escape jams.  While he makes no excuses for his performance, it could be the inning load or some recent pitch counts.  He will have to gut out one more start before an off day gives him some much needed rest.  The Cardinals are 2-1 in Wainwright’s 3 starts against the Pirates in 2013.

Jeff Locke has been the Pirates version of Lance Lynn, a deceptively good win/loss record that hides a late season collapse.  It had gotten so bad that Locke was optioned to the minor leagues after his last start on August 27, to give him a break.   This will be his first start since returning to the Pirates.  Locke has faced the Cardinals twice this year.  He was sensational in April, pitching 7 scoreless innings.  He has a 1-0 record  and the Pirates have won both of his starts.

Adam Wainwright will set the tone for this game.  If he is strong early and keeps a low pitch count, it could be a long night for the Pirates.   Recent history says otherwise, but this is Adam Wainwright, and we should never underestimate him in a big game.

TV: Fox Sports Midwest, ROOT Sports, MLB Network

Sunday, September 8 – 1:15pm CDT

Michael Wacha (2-0, 3.20) vs Charlie Morton (7-3, 3.00)

This will be Michael Wacha’s sixth start for the Cardinals in his first full professional season, and what a season it has been for the 22 year old.  He has also spent some time in the Cardinals bullpen plus 15 starts with the Cardinals AAA affiliate in Memphis.  The Cardinals have managed his inning load very closely, so he should be able to finish out the regular season and still have something left for post-season.  Wacha was sensational in his last start, throwing six scoreless innings in Cincinnati, allowing just 3 hits.

Charlie Morton returned to the Pirates in June, exactly one year after having Tommy John surgery.  After a few starts to stretch him out, Morton has been strong, and getting stronger with each successive start.   He has faced the Cardinals twice, both times in August, and did not receive a decision in either game.  The Cardinals won both of them.  If the inning load is getting to Morton, which is not uncommon in the first year following ligament replacement surgery, he is not showing it.  He has won his last 3 starts and shaved half of a run off his ERA.

This one is too close to call.   It may be decided by the two bullpens.

TV: Fox Sports Midwest, ROOT Sports

Who is Hot – Pittsburgh

Marlon Byrd, who was acquired at the post-season trade deadline, is hitting .444 with 5 doubles and 6 RBIs over the last week.  This is just what the Pirates needed to help make up for the loss of Starling Marte, who hasn’t played since mid-August.

Neil Walker is 10 for his last 26 with 2 doubles, a triple and a home run.   He also plays well against St. Louis, so the Cardinals pitchers need to be very careful with him.

Another newcomer, Justin Morneau, is hitting .462 (6-13) over the last week.   The power isn’t there yet, but he was on a tear prior to be traded to Pittsburgh.

Andrew McCutchen – is there a time when McCutchen is not on fire ?  While he was stone cold in the Cardinals last series in Pittsburgh, he was a one man wrecking crew in the last three games against the Brewers.  He went 5-12 with a double and 2 home runs.  If there is anything positive to take away from that as a Cardinals fan, both the homers were solo shots.

Who is Not – Pittsburgh

Pedro Alverez, who destroys Cardinals pitching, is struggling at the plate.  He is just 2 for his last 20, with 6 strikeouts, but both of those hits were doubles.

Russell Martin is 2-14, but both of those hits were home runs.

John Buck, another of the Pirates last minute additions, is just 2 for his last 20, but does have an RBI.

Who is Hot – St. Louis

Shane Robinson has 3 hits and 3 walks in his last 10 plate appearances for an On Base Percentage of .600.  Unfortunately, he was picked off in a key moment of the final loss in the Reds series, but if he continues to reach base, he will stay in the batting order.

MarpMatt Carpenter is hitting .391 this month with 3 doubles, a triple and 6 runs scored.   While the rest of the Cardinals look weary, Carpenter continues to produce at the top of the batting order.  He leads the National League in hits (170), doubles (46) and runs (106) scored.  His next double will set the Cardinals single season record.

David Freese, who has become part of an unusual platoon with Kolten Wong, is starting to heat up and making it harder for Mike Matheny to keep him on the bench.  He is 3 for his last 10 including a double, home run, 3 RBIs and 4 walks.

Joe Kelly continues recreating Nelson Briles heroic 1967 performance when he stepped in and helped deliver an NL Pennant and World Series Championship.  Since joining the rotation in early July, Kelly is 7-0 and the Cardinals have only lost one of his 10 starts.  His peripheral stats (walks, hits, strikeouts) don’t support his current performance, which makes it all the more fun to watch.  The key to Kelly’s success is his runner strand rate.  A much improved off speed pitch repertoire and less tipping has been a big part of that.

The Young Guns.  Other than Matt Carpenter, the young hurlers in the Cardinals bullpen are the other main reason why the team is still in contention for a playoff spot.  Seth Maness, Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, Edward Mujica and more recently Tyler Lyons, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez have been amazing to watch this summer.  Since he is pitching like a young man, we might as well add the veteran lefty, Randy Choate, into this group.   Most of them are rookies, but many have experienced postseason, either in St. Louis or in their minor league career.   The addition of John Axford gives a bit of insurance in case one of them struggles over the next few weeks.

Who is Not – St. Louis

Any starter not named Joe Kelly.  There is no way to sugar coat this, the rest of the rotation has been roughed up pretty badly.  Lance Lynn continues his curious second half meltdown, but Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller’s decline is more concerning.  With an off day coming up after this series, the addition of Michael Wacha into the rotation as well as a possible spot start from Tyler Lyons or Carlos Martinez, we hope that both, if not all three, return to something more resembling their early season performance.

Yadier Molina is still among the leaders in batting average, but has been stone cold in September.  He has gone 3 for his last 18, all singles.  He has scored a run and driven in one.

Allen Craig is out with a foot injury, but was struggling at the time of his injury.

Carlos Beltran is 2-13 with a pair of singles and one RBI in the last week.

Matt Adams is 2-11 in September, but those two hits were historic, coming in the 14th and 16th inning of a thrilling extra inning win in Cincinnati.  With Allen Craig out with a foot injury, Adams playing time will increase.

Since these are the main run producers in the Cardinals batting order, it is no surprise that the team as a whole is struggling.

Kolten Wong has just one hit in 9 at bats in September, an infield single.  Wong has had a slow start to his major league career, but when he does get on base, he doesn’t stay on first for very long.

Jon Jay .063 / .111 / .063 so far this month with just one hit in 9 at-bats.  As a result, Shane Robinson is starting to play against left handed pitching in a platoon.   If Jay’s struggles continue, Robinson might start getting a few starts against righties as well.

Tony Cruz, Ryan Jackson, Adron Chambers. Brock Peterson and Rob Johnson are all 0 for September, in limited action.   Audry Perez was called up as additional catcher depth, but has yet to get into a game.

Key Injuries – Pittsburgh

Jason Grilli (rhp) has been out since late July with a strained forearm.  He has been activated after a short rehab assignment in the minor leagues, but is not expected to see much action right away. Mark Melancon will continue as the closer as Grilli works his way back into regular duty.

Wandy Rodriguez (lhp)  – has just started his minor league rehab and is expected to be back before the end of the regular season.

Starling Marte (of) is out with a hand injury.  He has still not started throwing or swinging the bat and it is unlikely that he will return during this series.

Michael McKenry (c) – out for the season recovering from knee surgery

James McDonald (rhp) is on the 60 day and has begun a rehab throwing program, but is not expected to return to the Pirates this year.

Jeff Karstens (rhp) and Phil Irwin (rhp) are out for the season.

Key Injuries – St. Louis

Allen Craig (1b) – Sprained foot.  Early medical reports are that Craig’s ankle is not broken, but rather a sprain of his foot. There is no time table on his return to the lineup.   While Craig has been struggling of late, his production with runners in scoring position is still outstanding.   Allen Craig currently has 97 RBIs.

Jake Westbrook (rhp) – lower back strain.  He has just been activated and is available for this series, but his role remains undefined.

John Gast (lhp) – season ending surgery to repair torn shoulder muscle.

Jaime Garcia (lhp) is out for the season with shoulder surgery.  He has recently started throwing.

Chris Carpenter (rhp) is out for the season with the season with nerve irritation to his pitching shoulder.  His rehab activities were shut down in July.

Jason Motte (rhp) is out for the season with Tommy John surgery.

Rafael Furcal (ss) is out for the season with Tommy John surgery.

Looking ahead

Of  the three teams competing for the NL Central title, the Cardinals have the easiest schedule on paper.  In addition to be heavily loaded with home games (15-7), they will face only one team with a winning record.   Their remaining schedule is

Sep 10-12 Milwaukee (60-79)
Sep 13-15 Seattle (63-77)
Sep 16-19 At Colorado (66-75)
Sep 20-22 At Milwaukee (60-79)
Sep 23-25 Washington (71-68)
Sep 27-29 Chicago (59-80)

The Cardinals also have two off days, September 9 and 26.

The Pirates remaining 20 games are a bit more evenly split between home and away.  They will also play 9 of those games against a team in a playoff race, Texas (3) and Cincinnati (6) as well as ending their season on the road.  Their remaining schedule is

Sep 9-11 at Texas (80-59)
Sep 12-15 Chicago (59-80)
Sep 16-17 San Diego (62-77)
Sep 20-22 Cincinnati (79-62)
Sep 23-25 at Chicago (59-80)
Sep 27-29 at Cincinnati (79-62)

The Pirates have just one off day, September 26.

For completeness, here is the Reds remaining schedule, which looks a lot like the Pirates.

Sep 6-8 Los Angeles (83-56)
Sep 9-11 Chicago (59-80)
Sep 13-15 At Milwaukee (60-79)
Sep 16-18 At Houston (47-93)
Sep 20-22 At Pittsburgh (81-58)
Sep 23-25 New York Mets (63-75)
Sep 27-29 Pirates (81-58)

The Reds have three off days, September 12, 19 and 26.

Three games currently separate the Reds, Pirates and Cardinals.  In what has already been an exciting season for fans of all three teams, the best may be yet to come.

This series preview has been written by Bob Netherton, from the mostly historical blog On the Outside Corner,  You can also find Bob on Twitter during game time at @CardinalTales.

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