Things have changed in a major way in the seven days since the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates met in one of the season's most memorable games.
The Cardinals have been surging and the Pirates have been stumbling since they played a 19-inning thriller, and the final 2012 series between these NL Central rivals and wild-card contenders begins Monday night at PNC Park.
When Pittsburgh (68-59) survived for a 6-3, 19-inning win at St. Louis (70-57) on Aug. 19, it gave the Pirates a two-game lead over the Cardinals for the NL's second wild card.
St. Louis has gone 5-1 since while Pittsburgh has dropped five of six to make the margin two games the other way now. There are major question marks about the Pirates' focus entering their last chance to gain ground on the Cardinals head-to-head.
St. Louis, meanwhile, seems to have put Pittsburgh in its rear-view mirror. Matt Holliday had four hits and four RBIs in Sunday's 8-2 rout at Cincinnati that pulled the Cardinals within six games of the division-leading Reds.
It's probably not surprising that St. Louis has surged ahead in this race. The defending World Series champions own baseball's best run differential at plus-126 while the Pirates have outscored their foes by a mere 11 runs.
Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse (13-2, 2.61 ERA) has gone 7-0 with a 2.21 ERA in 12 outings since his last loss June 15 against Kansas City. The right-hander is 2-0 with a 1.01 ERA this month after allowing two runs over seven innings Wednesday to earn a 4-2 victory over Houston.
Lohse won at PNC Park on April 22 in his lone 2012 outing against the Pirates to improve to 8-2 with a 3.51 ERA against them in 15 starts.
The Pirates have to be wondering which A.J. Burnett (15-4, 3.63) will show up against the Cardinals based on his two 2012 outings against them.
The right-hander was brilliant with seven strikeouts over seven innings in a 2-0 home win April 21. He was then tagged for a career-worst 12 runs over 2 2-3 innings as Carlos Beltran homered twice off him in the Cardinals' 12-3 rout May 2.
Burnett, the Pirates' first 15-game winner since Todd Ritchie in 1999, is 8-1 with a 2.81 ERA in 12 home starts.
These teams have split 12 meetings in 2012.
One series through potentially their most difficult trip of the season, a 10-game jaunt to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Washington, the Cardinals are feeling good about their chances of making the playoffs again.
A 17-hit assault, featuring four hits and four RBI by Matt Holliday, buried NL Central-leading Cincinnati 8-2 Sunday. That gave the Cardinals the series, two games to one.
Holliday was the hottest hitter in the majors for nearly two months, then went quiet for a couple of weeks, including a 1-for-24 dive that dropped his average to .300. However,, in the last six games, Holliday has gone 12-for-27 and taken over the NL RBI lead at 89.
"It's amazing how conversations outside this clubhouse started questioning him," manager Mike Matheny said.
The Cardinals (70-57) are back to their high-water mark, 13 games over .500.
"We're playing pretty good right now," said Holliday, in an understatement.
The lucky number, 13, also could be applied to the staff leader in wins. Right-hander Adam Wainwright, though disappointed he had to come out the game in the sixth inning, gained his sixth straight victory to give him 13 wins for the season. That matches the total of Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook and Lance Lynn.
"Every game feels like we're playing the last one," Matheny said. "The guys are doing a good job of (playing with) urgency and not just saying it. To deny that it doesn't mean more inside the division is not true. But to be consistent, we have to have that approach all the time."
3B David Freese sat out a second straight start after being hit in the left wrist by a pitch Friday. However, neither an X-ray nor a CAT scan revealed anything major, and Freese said he expected to be able to play Monday in Pittsburgh. "Oh, yeah," Freese said. "No question. Everything is OK in there."
INF/OF Matt Carpenter filled in for David Freese at third base and had two hits Saturday and three Sunday. Carpenter also fielded flawlessly both days.
1B Allen Craig is hitting .409 with runners in scoring position after a two-run homer and a single Sunday gave him three RBI. "You give him a whole season and he's an All-Star," RHP Adam Wainwright said.
OF Shane Robinson got his club-leading 10th pinch hit of the season with a single in the seventh. That leadoff hit was the spark of a two-run inning.
RHP Adam Wainwright didn't last his usual six innings or more, being pulled with two outs in the sixth after giving up a couple of runs as the Cardinals missed a chance to make two double plays. "It seemed like he was coming up (in the strike zone) and losing a little bit of his crispness," manager Mike Matheny said. Wainwright had thrown a 105-pitch shutout and then 98 pitches in six innings the game before that. "I get it," said Wainwright of Matheny taking him out in the sixth. "But, certainly I want to take my team further in the game than that."
Wainwright got a single to help set up a three-run Cardinals inning in the third.
"Sometimes the difference in wins or losses is what we do at the plate as pitchers," he said. "Today it probably wasn't the difference, but it certainly helped things."
RHP Edward Mujica continued his spotless pitching. Mujica has worked in 12 games, covering 12 1/3 scoreless innings, since being acquired from Miami on July 31.
LHP Marc Rzepczynski contributed out of the bullpen, retiring Cincinnati RF Jay Bruce, the potential tying run, in the sixth inning after falling behind in the count 3-0.
By The Numbers:
0—Walks by either side in the Cardinals' 8-2 win over the Reds on Sunday.
Quote To Note:
"He can hit a ball out to right (field) that is three inches off the ground, and he can hit it out to left three inches off his hands."
—RHP Adam Wainwright, on 1B Allen Craig.