MLB Insiders: St. Louis Cardinals

The Pirates open a three-game series in St. Louis on Friday night. Struggling right-hander James McDonald will be on the mound for the Bucs. The Cards will toss righty Jake Westbrook.

The St. Louis Cardinals were two outs from entering their crucial series against the Pittsburgh Pirates tied for the second NL wild-card spot.

But if anyone can get them even quickly, it's Jake Westbrook, who will try to win a career-best sixth consecutive start Friday night to open this three-game set between division rivals.

The reigning World Series champions are tied with San Francisco at 64-54, one game back of Pittsburgh (65-53). The Cardinals held a 1-0 lead with Jason Motte trying to finish off Arizona late Thursday night after an 85-minute rain delay before the game, but he allowed homers to Paul Goldschmidt and Chris Young on consecutive pitches in an eventual 2-1 loss to the Diamondbacks.

Westbrook (12-8, 3.62 ERA), meanwhile, has been a driving force in getting St. Louis into playoff contention, compiling a 2.94 ERA during his winning streak. The right-hander matched his 2011 win total after beating Philadelphia on Saturday, getting 17 groundouts during 7 2-3 innings of one-run pitching in a 4-1 victory.

After dropping two starts to the Pirates earlier this season while being backed by only two runs, Westbrook notched his first career win against them in a 5-4 victory July 1 despite giving up four runs and nine hits in six innings. He is 1-5 with a 5.18 ERA in seven starts and 11 lifetime games versus the Pirates.

While Westbrook has flourished, Pirates counterpart James McDonald (10-5, 3.77) has foundered. The right-hander is 1-2 with an 8.71 ERA in six starts since the All-Star break, with the worst outing last Friday when he allowed a season-worst seven runs in 4 1-3 innings to San Diego as he blew a 6-1 lead.

The Pirates got him off the hook for the loss by rallying before eventually losing 9-8.

McDonald went 1-0 in three starts against the Cardinals last year, giving up seven runs in 16 1-3 innings, but did not receive a decision in either of his outings at Busch Stadium. He is 2-1 with a 3.38 ERA in four starts and eight lifetime appearances versus St. Louis.

With the best offense in the National League, four starting pitchers who have won at least 11 games and one of the top closers in the league, the Cardinals still are the subject of the question, "Why aren't they doing better?"

One answer is their inability to win close games.

Their 2-1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday, a game that started an hour and 25 minutes late because of rain, dropped the Cardinals to 12-20 in one-run games. Counting the Cardinals' 5-13 mark in games decided by two runs, they are 17-33 in close games and 47-21 in games determined by three or more runs.

This one hurt, though, as the Cardinals had a 1-0 lead with two outs to get before right-hander Jason Motte gave up two homers on back-to-back pitches in the ninth. He had reeled off 13 straight saves since June 17, the date he allowed his last home run.

First baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who had been beaten by two Motte cutters earlier in the at-bat, worked the at-bat to a ninth pitch before hitting a high cutter over the left-center-field wall.

One pitch later, slumping center fielder Chris Young lifted a low fastball off the facade of the third deck.

"It wasn't good," Motte (4-4) said of his outing.

Regarding Goldschmidt's homer, Motte said, "You don't want to walk him, but you want to make a good enough pitch that he can't do much with it. I didn't do either one."

Motte said Young "was geared up for a fastball and he hit it. I didn't do my job tonight."

Notes, Quotes

RHP Kyle Lohse, who admitted he had little command of his fastball, made do with his breaking stuff and fashioned 6 2/3 scoreless innings, giving him a total of 13 2/3 innings, allowing just one run, over his last two starts. And Lohse (12-2) has two no-decisions to show for it. "His record has been good," said manager Mike Matheny, "but not nearly as good as it could be. This was another example of that. It's a shame." Lohse has had 13 quality starts out of his last 14 and remains 6-1 at home and 6-1 on the road.

RHP Jason Motte, who allowed two homers in the ninth inning, hadn't given up a home run since June 17, when Kansas City PH Billy Butler cost him a save. "We haven't seen too much of that from Jason," said manager Mike Matheny of his closer, who has 27 saves in 32 tries.

RHP Chris Carpenter, who had surgery nearly a month ago to relieve a nerve issue in his shoulder, did some light tossing from 40 to 60 feet on Thursday. "It's exciting to throw again," Carpenter said. "But also you want to find out what's going on and make sure we're doing the right things. We're not going to go crazy. We're going to make sure we take the steps the right way. It's going based on how I feel. It's only been a month, so there is still some healing going on in there. But it's healed enough to toss a little bit."

C Yadier Molina missed a second consecutive game Thursday with back soreness. Molina said he was better but his availability for Friday night's series opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates remained in question. "I want to be here for the team. I want to play. But I don't want to get back in the lineup and hurt it worse," he said.

LHP Jaime Garcia will make his first start Sunday since June 5, when he went out with a strained left shoulder. He is targeted to face Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Washington—three of the top teams in the National League—in his first three starts. "All I can say is I'm ready to go for Sunday. I don't want to say I'm 100 percent, 90 percent, 80 percent," Garcia said. "I don't want to talk about how things used to be or to make predictions. They asked me how I felt. I said if they needed me to go Sunday, I was ready."

By The Numbers: 2—Number of hits the Cardinals had to the outfield on Thursday. Four of their six hits were infield hits.

Quote To Note: "We've got to learn a better way to win these close games." —RHP Kyle Lohse after the Cardinals' record in one-run games dropped to 12-20.

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