As the pennant races heat up, Big League Stew takes a closer look at some of the biggest series down the stretch.
Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals.
SITUATION: Those surprising Pirates bring a one-and-a-half-game NL Central lead into a three-game series against the Cardinals beginning Friday. The Cards were tops in the division in May, June and July. But the Pirates haven't faded down the stretch this season like they have in years past, instead surging into first place and making this NL Central race the most entertaining in all of baseball.
This three-game set could swing the division in either way. If the Cards can manage a sweep, it could kill the Pirates spirits and put St. Louis in control again. If the Pirates sweep then they're looking even stronger for the division title. If it's the most likely scenario, some kind of split, then the grappling continues. Both teams are almost assured postseason berths, but getting that division title and avoiding a do-or-die wild card game is of the utmost importance.
PREVIOUSLY: These teams have played each other 11 time since July 29, with the series leaning 7-4 in favor of the Pirates. The Pirates also lead the overall season series 10-6. This is the final meeting between the two teams in the regular season.
Friday: A.J. Burnett (7-9, 3.09 ERA) vs. Joe Kelly (7-3, 2.82 ERA)
Saturday: Jeff Locke (9-4, 3.22 ERA) vs. Adam Wainwright (15-9, 3.14 ERA)
Sunday: Charlie Morton (7-3, 3.00 ERA) vs. Michael Wacha (2-0, 3.20 ERA)
STORYLINES TO WATCH:
• Will the Pirates get win No. 82? The Pirates (81-58) are one win away from their first winning season in 20 years. It's not a matter of if, but when they get it and doing it against perennial NL Central power St. Louis would certainly be good for morale.
• Will the Cards rebound? They just lost three of four against the other NL Central contender, the Cincinnati Reds. St. Louis is 2-6 in its last eight games. Now is the time to get it together.
• Which starter can find their big-game stuff on Saturday? Cards ace Adam Wainwright has gotten beaten up in the last two starts, both against the Reds. He gave up a un-Wainwrightian nine runs in two innings on Aug. 28 then six runs in six innings on Sept. 2. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh's Jeff Locke, once a very pleasant surprise, has come back to earth. He hasn't pitched into the sixth inning since July 26. He gave up 10 hits and four runs in four innings the last time he faced the Cardinals.