The stage is set for a head-to-head series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals in the battle for the NL Central. The Pirates grabbed the lead from the Cardinals one month ago, taking 4-of-5 in the biggest series ever at PNC Park.
Now a game back, Pittsburgh hopes Francisco Liriano can ignite the fire to pull them back into a first-place tie on Friday in the first game of a critical back-to-back weekend series.
The next 10 games are crucial for the Pirates hopes to win the division title for the first time since 1992.
The last time the two teams met at PNC Park Pittsburgh went from 1.5 games behind the Cardinals to 1.5 games up on them, but the tables have turned and the Cardinals have won 12 of 17 games and are back ahead of the Pirates after a 27-day first place run.
Thursday’s 4-0 loss to Milwaukee dropped the Pirates to 12-14 this month, including a pair of extra-inning losses in a three-game set at Busch Stadium from Aug. 13-15. The struggling Pirates look to get back on track and back to their winning ways with the help of newly acquired Marlon Byrd and John Buck.
Buck went 3-for-3 in his Pirates debut, while Byrd hit a 3-run homer in his. The two look to help boost an up and down Pirates offense.
Byrd is a career .291 hitter against St. Louis but with only four home runs and 16 RBIs in 202 at-bats.
Left-hander Francisco Liriano has held the Cardinals to two runs in 16 innings over his last two starts against them, both victories. Liriano pitched a complete game gem in his last outing against the Cardinals after a brutal outing the week before against the Rockies. Liriano will look to rebound from a subpar outing last Saturday with another beauty.
Shelby Miller (12-8, 2.90) has proven he can be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher in his first full major league season. The Cardinals right-hander held the Braves to a solo homer and two other hits over seven innings in a 6-2 win on Saturday.
“I thought that’s probably about as good as we’ve seen him in a long time,” manager Mike Matheny said. “His stuff was electric and he was in the lower part of the zone. He was really locked in, hopefully that’s something he can maintain.”
However, Miller matched a season high by surrendering five runs, 3 earned, earlier in the month against Liriano. Both Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones took the young Cardinals pitcher deep.
Saturday A.J. Burnett (6-9, 3.18) takes the mound against Lance Lynn (13-8, 4.02). Burnett had allowed a total of three earned runs in three starts before being blasted for six runs in 5 2/3 innings at Colorado earlier in the month. Since then it has been an uphill battle for the veteran.
Burnett’s last outing against the Cardinals on Aug. 15 he lasted 4 1/3 innings and gave up five runs on eight hits. The 36-year-old right-hander bounced back against the Padres on Aug. 20, as he pitched seven innings of four hit baseball. Last Sunday against the Giants, Burnett went 7 1/3 innings giving up four runs on eight hits, but his teammates once again failed to get him any run support.
The series will conclude on Sunday with Jeanmar Gomez (3-0, 3.25) taking the mound against Joe Kelly (6-3, 3.25).
Gomez is filling in for the struggling Jeff Locke, who was optioned to Double-A Altoona earlier in the week. Gomez has done a solid job for the Pirates this season in whatever role they ask of him.
The Pirates will take 2-of-3 from the Cardinals this weekend for a tie atop the NL Central.