MLB Insiders: St. Louis Cardinals

The Pirates open a three-game series with the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night at PNC Park. Lefty Paul Maholm will be on the mound for the Bucs. The Cards will toss right-hander Chris Carpenter.

After dropping two of three to the Pirates during the first week of the season, the St. Louis Cardinals were looking up at Pittsburgh in the NL Central.

Few would have believed the Pirates would still have an edge 3 1/2 months later.

Two-thirds of a logjam atop the division, Pittsburgh and St. Louis will get reacquainted with 13 meetings over the next eight weeks, starting with the opener of an unusually significant series at PNC Park on Friday night.

The Pirates (51-45) only scored nine runs during their three-game visit to Busch Stadium from April 4-6, but they left with two wins behind a staff that limited the Cardinals - who were missing Matt Holliday - to seven.

A two-game edge in the season's first week may have been meaningless, but the Pirates are still part of a tight three-team race with St. Louis (51-47) and Milwaukee thanks to that pitching staff. Pittsburgh's 3.34 ERA is sixth in the majors and more than a half-run better than the Central's next-best team, the Cardinals at 3.93.

The Pirates have a 2.97 ERA against the Central while going 24-14. Pittsburgh dropped its series finale with Cincinnati 3-1 on Wednesday but won the first two meetings, its seventh straight three-game series victory and 11th of 13 in the division.

Paul Maholm (6-9, 3.06), who is 4-0 with an 0.84 ERA in his last five starts at home, gets the ball for the opener. The left-hander didn't earn a decision in Saturday's 6-4 loss at Houston, giving up three runs over five innings.

He's 4-4 with a 3.33 ERA in 13 career starts against the Cardinals.

Chris Carpenter (5-7, 3.69) is 11-2 with a 2.09 ERA in 16 starts against Pittsburgh, and he can pull the Cardinals even with the Pirates by earning a fifth straight victory.

Carpenter held the Reds to a run over eight innings in Saturday's 4-1 win, lowering his ERA to 1.66 since June 23.

At a time when the stumbling Cardinals needed it and erratic right-hander Jake Westbrook also needed it, the veteran dialed up one of his best games of the season in beating the Mets, 6-2.

Westbrook, mixing his trademark sinker with a changeup and cut fastball, induced 17 ground-ball outs, including two double plays, as he threw only 90 pitches over eight innings on a steamy day at Citi Field.

"It was probably one of the better games I've thrown all year," said Westbrook, who has a surprisingly good 8-4 record despite an earned run average that has been above 5.00 all season.

His mark of 5.04 after Thursday's game represents his lowest of the season.

Westbrook, who pitching coach Dave Duncan said "needs to pitch in the bottom of the strike zone," is controlling counts better. With only one walk, Westbrook has walked none or one in six of his last seven starts.

But he has been past the sixth inning in only seven of his last 10 starts.

"I think my downfall all year has been consistency," he said. "I'd have one good ballgame and then some really bad ones, and then some middle-of-the-road ones. Hopefully this will be the one that gets me back on track."

NOTES, QUOTES

--RHP Kyle Lohse left the team Thursday to return to St. Louis and have the inflamed middle finger on his pitching hand examined by Dr. George Paletta. "He's still scheduled to be our guy Sunday (in Pittsburgh)," manager Tony La Russa said. "We'll keep our fingers crossed." Lohse is 8-7 with a 3.45 ERA this season in 19 starts, but is 0-3 with a 7.64 ERA in July.

--1B Albert Pujols got RHP Jake Westbrook off to a good start with a two-run home run, his 21st, in the first inning after a nine-pitch at-bat. "I still don't know if I was right not to (start) him (Wednesday)," La Russa said about resting Pujols against Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. "He's a force. We're lucky he's on our side and all the years in the past and forever, I hope."

--Besides shackling New York on only four hits and two runs for eight innings Thursday, RHP Jake Westbrook, not known for his hitting, drew a key walk on a three-run fifth. On the next play, as he slid into second, he was hit in the back by a throw from 1B Lucas Duda, with a run scoring.

--2B Nick Punto handled 10 chances flawlessly, including the pivot two double plays. Manager Tony La Russa said former manager Tom Kelly of the Minnesota Twins, for whom Punto played the previous seven seasons, told La Russa, "He's just a magician."

--CF Jon Jay, who seems to have wrested the regular job away from skidding Colby Rasmus, had two hits and drove in a run. Jay is nine for his last 18 and is batting .311.

BY THE NUMBERS: 32 -- Consecutive games, since June 9, in which the Cardinals hadn't stolen a base until C Yadier Molina stole his second without a throw Thursday.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "They definitely were not using their run defense." -- Manager Tony La Russa, on the Mets after C Yadier Molina stole second base in the ninth inning.

ROSTER REPORT
MEDICAL WATCH:

--RHP Kyle Lohse (inflamed middle right finger) left the team July 21 to have an exam in St. Louis. He is still scheduled to start July 24 at Pittsburgh.

--INF Nick Punto (sore right elbow) left the July 16 game. He pinch-hit July 17 but didn't play July 18-19. He played as a reserve July 20, and he started at second base July 21.

--LHP Brian Tallet (strained right intercostal muscle) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to July 4. He was injured while sneezing.

--RHP Eduardo Sanchez (mild right shoulder strain) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to June 13. He began a rehab assignment with Class AA Springfield on July 7 but had renewed soreness soon after and was shut down until late August or early September.

--OF Allen Craig (broken right kneecap) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to June 8. He might return in late July.

--RHP Adam Wainwright (Tommy John surgery in February 2011) went on the 60-day disabled list March 25. He will miss the entire 2011 season.


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