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Cardinals-Pirates Preview

AP - Sports

Things have changed in a major way in the seven days since the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates met in one of the season's most memorable games.

The Cardinals have been surging and the Pirates have been stumbling since they played a 19-inning thriller, and the final 2012 series between these NL Central rivals and wild-card contenders begins Monday night at PNC Park.

When Pittsburgh (68-59) survived for a 6-3, 19-inning win at St. Louis (70-57) on Aug. 19, it gave the Pirates a two-game lead over the Cardinals for the NL's second wild card.

St. Louis has gone 5-1 since while Pittsburgh has dropped five of six to make the margin two games the other way now. There are major question marks about the Pirates' focus entering their last chance to gain ground on the Cardinals head-to-head.

"I would not say we're not focused,'' said Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle after his team's 7-0 home loss to Milwaukee on Sunday. "I wouldn't say that's an accurate statement. We're just not playing well.

"We've got to play better to win. And they know that. There's nobody who knows it better than them.''

St. Louis, meanwhile, seems to have put Pittsburgh in its rear-view mirror. Matt Holliday had four hits and four RBIs in Sunday's 8-2 rout at Cincinnati that pulled the Cardinals within six games of the division-leading Reds.

"I'm just trying to do my part,'' Holliday said. "This is a team game. We only play the Reds three more times. We are going to need some help."

It's probably not surprising that St. Louis has surged ahead in this race. The defending World Series champions own baseball's best run differential at plus-126 while the Pirates have outscored their foes by a mere 11 runs.

Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse (13-2, 2.61 ERA) has gone 7-0 with a 2.21 ERA in 12 outings since his last loss June 15 against Kansas City. The right-hander is 2-0 with a 1.01 ERA this month after allowing two runs over seven innings Wednesday to earn a 4-2 victory over Houston.

Lohse won at PNC Park on April 22 in his lone 2012 outing against the Pirates to improve to 8-2 with a 3.51 ERA against them in 15 starts. He has had trouble against Jose Tabata (9 for 18), Neil Walker (8 for 29) and Andrew McCutchen (8 for 25).

The Pirates have to be wondering which A.J. Burnett (15-4, 3.63) will show up against the Cardinals based on his two 2012 outings against them.

The right-hander was brilliant with seven strikeouts over seven innings in a 2-0 home win April 21. He was then tagged for a career-worst 12 runs over 2 2-3 innings as Carlos Beltran homered twice off him in the Cardinals' 12-3 rout May 2.

Burnett, the Pirates' first 15-game winner since Todd Ritchie in 1999, is 8-1 with a 2.81 ERA in 12 home starts.

These teams have split 12 meetings in 2012. Pedro Alvarez is 15 for 45 with four homers and 16 RBIs in the season series for Pittsburgh while Beltran leads St. Louis with 12 RBIs.

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