The Pittsburgh Pirates lost two out of three games to the St. Louis Cardinals this week but still come out of that series with their lead in the NL Central only one game less than it was entering the three-game set.
Starling Marte's error in the bottom of the ninth Tuesday allowed the tying run to reach base and gave the Cardinals the opportunity to knot up the score—and they took advantage—ultimately seizing a 4-3 victory in 14 innings.
The Pirates spotted starter A.J. Burnett a four-run lead in the top of the fifth inning Thursday only to see that lead evaporate in the bottom half of the inning. The Cardinals scored five times in the fifth and eventually went on to win 6-5 in 12 innings.
Burnett ranks near the bottom of the league in terms of run support (13th-worst), according to ESPN. Jeff Locke's support is even worse (ninth-worst).
With a two-game lead in the division, the upcoming 10-game stretch against NL West opponents will be critical in getting things back on track. Seven of the 10 games are on the West Coast. The team is 5-5 in its last 10 games, while the red-hot Cincinnati Reds have won eight of their last 10.
The Pirates will kick off a three-game series Friday at PNC Park with the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that sits six games out of the NL Wild Card.
The Diamondbacks will send out Brandon McCarthy (2-6, 4.73) against Gerrit Cole (5-5, 3.95) Friday in what may prove to be the showcase pitching matchup of the series.
Cole's last start in the rotation was skipped, so he will be returning on extra rest. After winning his first four decisions, the rookie has lost five of his last six.
McCarthy returned from the disabled list Aug. 4 to pitch against the Boston Red Sox. The 6-foot-7-inch right-hander yielded two earned runs in 4.1 innings pitched in a loss and followed that start up with a better performance Aug. 10, allowing two earned runs in seven innings.
Saturday's showdown with the D-backs will pit Trevor Cahill (3-10, 4.66) against Locke (9-3, 2.43).
In Sunday's series finale, Wade Miley (9-8, 3.63) will take the hill against Charlie Morton (4-3, 3.79).
In addition to the playoff implications that surround this pivotal series, an interesting subplot that bears watching is the matchup of co-NL home run leaders Pedro Alvarez and Paul Goldschmidt. The D-backs first baseman leads the NL in RBI with 93 and is having a career year. Alvarez leads the Pirates in RBI (76) but has struggled to maintain consistency in hitting for average (.235).
The Pirates are 8-10 against teams from the NL West but are 2-1 so far against the D-backs.
PNC Park has proven to be a fortress as well, as the Pirates have the second best home record in MLB at 41-20.