Cards' push for playoff run pits them vs. Pirates

The St. Louis Cardinals won their first series after the All-Star break. Now, they embark on a key stretch that will help define what needs to be done before the July 31 trade deadline.

The Cardinals, who took two of three from the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks to inch above .500 at 46-45, continue the home set Monday night with the first of three games against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

St. Louis will play its next 11 games against the Pirates and Cincinnati Reds, two teams that trail the third-place Cardinals in the National League Central. St. Louis is three games behind the Chicago Cubs in the division race and on the fringe of a wild-card spot, so the club figures to be buyers at the trade deadline, especially if it can make some hay in this 11-game stretch.

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"The assessment is: Can we start playing better?" president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said on MLB.com. "If we can, then it can be more directionally or specific on what we'll try to do. But if we're still hovering around .500, it might be a different course of action."

Manager Mike Shildt said his concern isn't who the Cardinals are playing.

"You will probably hear me say this a lot moving forward, because I know this question will come up and I understand the question, but the reality is, we're playing against ourselves," Shildt said after Sunday's 5-2 win. "We have a standard of playing every day to our ability and playing the right way, and our opponent is our opponent."

Pittsburgh enters the series having been swept in three games in Chicago against the Cubs.

During the series, Starling Marte became the second player in franchise history to reach 100 home runs and 200 stolen bases. The other: Barry Bonds.

"He likes hitting the ball hard," manager Clint Hurdle said on MLB.com. "He likes squaring the ball up. More home runs are thrown than hit, and he's getting balls that are elevated in the strike zone and is putting his 'A' swing on them and riding them out of the ballpark."

Marte and Josh Bell (.298, 27 home runs, 31 doubles) will take on St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas (5-9, 4.53 ERA).

The right-hander has one win in his past 10 starts and last pitched July 6, when he gave up five runs (four earned) in four innings at the San Francisco Giants. He does have 18 strikeouts and only two walks in his past four starts.

Mikolas is 2-3 with a 2.96 ERA in nine games (seven starts) against Pittsburgh.

The Pirates will go with Joe Musgrove (6-7, 4.15). St. Louis pounded Musgrove earlier this season, scoring eight runs on six hits and five walks in three innings in a 17-4 home win on May 9.

But Musgrove entered the All-Star break on a hot streak, having allowed four earned runs in his past four starts over 22 innings (1.64 ERA). That included three scoreless innings against the Chicago Cubs in a start that was cut short because of a rain delay. Pittsburgh is 4-0 in his past four outings.

The right-hander is 1-3 with a 6.95 ERA in four career starts against St. Louis.

St. Louis is ready to use Michael Wacha out of the bullpen after deciding to keep Daniel Ponce de Leon in the rotation. Wacha, who is 5-4 with a 5.54 ERA, has two relief appearances this season in addition to 14 starts.

--Field Level Media

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