After dropping two of three to the Pirates during the first week of the season, the St. Louis Cardinals were looking up at Pittsburgh in the NL Central.
Few would have believed the Pirates would still have an edge 3 1/2 months later.
Two-thirds of a logjam atop the division, Pittsburgh and St. Louis will get reacquainted with 13 meetings over the next eight weeks, starting with the opener of an unusually significant series at PNC Park on Friday night.
The Pirates (51-45) only scored nine runs during their three-game visit to Busch Stadium from April 4-6, but they left with two wins behind a staff that limited the Cardinals - who were missing Matt Holliday(notes) - to seven.
A two-game edge in the season’s first week may have been meaningless, but the Pirates are still part of a tight three-team race with St. Louis (51-47) and Milwaukee thanks to that pitching staff. Pittsburgh’s 3.34 ERA is sixth in the majors and more than a half-run better than the Central’s next-best team, the Cardinals at 3.93.
“They’re legitimate,” St. Louis manager Tony La Russa told the Pirates’ official website. “They’re pitching well, they’re competing. Their young guys are now into their second or third or fourth year. They’re coming together.”
The Pirates have a 2.97 ERA against the Central while going 24-14. Pittsburgh dropped its series finale with Cincinnati 3-1 on Wednesday but won the first two meetings, its seventh straight three-game series victory and 11th of 13 in the division.
Sellouts are expected for all three games this weekend, though the Pirates say they won’t treat this series - the first of four between these teams before mid-September - different than any other.
“If we start putting pressure on ourselves because of who we’re playing, it’s not conducive to playing well,” said pitcher Charlie Morton(notes), slated to start Sunday. “We weren’t putting undue pressure on ourselves early in the year. There is no reason to start now.”
Paul Maholm(notes) (6-9, 3.06), who is 4-0 with an 0.84 ERA in his last five starts at home, gets the ball for the opener. The left-hander didn’t earn a decision in Saturday’s 6-4 loss at Houston, giving up three runs over five innings.
He’s 4-4 with a 3.33 ERA in 13 career starts against the Cardinals. Maholm has held Lance Berkman(notes) and Holliday to a combined 8 for 50, but Ryan Theriot(notes) and Albert Pujols(notes) have had their way with him. Theriot is 11 for 29 against Maholm, while Pujols is 19 for 33 with seven extra-base hits.
Maholm isn’t the only Pirates pitcher whom Pujols has tormented. His 26 homers and 77 RBIs at PNC are his most at any visiting venue.
He warmed up in style Thursday. The three-time NL MVP ended an 0-for-10 slump with a two-run, first-inning homer, helping the Cardinals avoid a sweep with a 6-2 win over the Mets.
Chris Carpenter (5-7, 3.69) is 11-2 with a 2.09 ERA in 16 starts against Pittsburgh, and he can pull the Cardinals even with the Pirates by earning a fifth straight victory.
Carpenter held the Reds to a run over eight innings in Saturday’s 4-1 win, lowering his ERA to 1.66 since June 23.
“Here he is, stepping up huge when we need him the most,” La Russa said of Carpenter. “He’s very special, and we’re lucky to have had him over the years.”