An erratic offense, some inconsistent play and a 20-year playoff drought hasn't prevented the Pittsburgh Pirates from remaining near the top of the NL Central.
Now the resilient Pirates have a chance to move past the St. Louis Cardinals atop the division with a doubleheader sweep Tuesday at PNC Park.
Francisco Liriano won for the sixth time in seven starts and Pedro Alvarez hit his NL-leading 27th home run in Monday's 9-2 series-opening victory that moved Pittsburgh (62-42) within a half-game of the slumping Cardinals (62-41).
Since averaging 3.2 runs and hitting .229 over a 14-game stretch, the Pirates have batted .267 and scored seven runs or more in three of their last five. They fanned four times Monday after striking out 62 times in their previous five games.
"We're a confident team,'' said manager Clint Hurdle, whose club seeks its first playoff berth in 21 years. "I think we're a team whose confidence isn't built on its last game. It's not shattered by a losing streak."
Although they're 9-10 since July 6, the Pirates can take over the division lead behind A.J. Burnett (4-7, 2.96 ERA) in the first game of the doubleheader, which includes a make up of an April 16 rainout.
Burnett hasn't won since coming off the disabled list July 7 despite allowing only six earned runs over 23 1-3 innings in four starts, thanks largely to Pittsburgh's nine runs of support.
The right-hander has pitched well at PNC Park against the Cardinals, going 2-1 with 18 strikeouts and a 1.37 ERA in three starts. He did not allow a run for the second time in three meetings there, giving up one hit and striking out eight over seven innings in a 5-0 win April 17.
Carlos Beltran has five hits - two home runs - and seven RBIs in 15 at-bats against Burnett the past two seasons, but he's 4 for 27 in his last seven games overall.
Teammate and fellow All-Star Allen Craig is also slumping, going 0 for 17 with nine strikeouts in his last five.
While the Cardinals lead the NL with 500 runs and a .274 batting average, they've scored five runs and hit .169 during a season-high four-game losing streak.
"You're going to have times like this in a season,'' manager Mike Matheny said. "You've just got to keep your head down and keep going and realize that over the long haul guys have done a real nice job producing offensively. That will be back.''
St. Louis counters with Lance Lynn (12-5, 3.98) as it tries to avoid losing five in a row for the first time since May 29-June 3, 2012.
The right-hander went 1-4 with 6.30 ERA during a five-start stretch before yielding one run and five hits over seven innings in a 3-1 win against Philadelphia on Thursday.
Lynn, though, is 1-3 with an 8.61 ERA in his last four road starts.
He'll attempt to reverse that trend as he goes for his third win versus the Pirates this season. Lynn has given up five runs over 12 innings in two starts, but allowed four in five innings to beat Pittsburgh 10-6 on the road April 15.
He's done a good job against All-Stars Alvarez and Andrew McCutchen, who are a combined 5 for 30 with nine strikeouts in this matchup.
St. Louis left-hander Tyler Lyons is scheduled to make his first big-league start since June 21 in the nightcap, while Pittsburgh's Game 2 starter has yet to be determined.
Lyons, who was demoted after going 0-3 with a 8.68 ERA in his last four starts with the Cardinals, allowed six earned runs and struck out 37 in 40 2-3 innings over a six-start stint at Triple-A Memphis.
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