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Bucs, Cards gear up for latest NL Central clash

Three-game set starts with matchup between Morton and Wainwright in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- The Pirates and the Cardinals didn't exactly steamroll into this Showdown II. But they are steamed.

There is a big difference. On the way to the next stage of the National League Central race in the shadow of the Gateway Arch, the contenders weren't on a fast track, but one littered with hurdles, few of which they cleared.

The first-place Bucs enter after three straight losses in Colorado -- a sweep that cost them only one game of their four-game division lead because the Cards dropped two of three to the Cubs, part of St. Louis' continuing 2-5 homestand.

How have their weeks been? Well, both had to resort to having position players throw -- baseball's ultimate act of throwing in the towel. Catcher Rob Johnson pitched for the Cardinals on Wednesday and utilityman Josh Harrison pitched for the Pirates on Friday.

Maybe the Redbirds are a little more steamed. Only two weeks ago, St. Louis went into Pittsburgh and had its 1 1/2-game lead turned into a 1 1/2-game deficit.

"Well, yeah, after they put a whooping on us at their place, it's nice for them to have to come here," Cards reliever Randy Choate said. "But we're not necessarily playing our best, you don't want to make too much of a series that's still in August, but it's kind of time to get going. But definitely getting on your home turf is better than having to go there."

The Cardinals had yet another hurdle thrown at them Sunday when the Cubs staged a sixth-inning rally to force a 4-4 tie. However, St. Louis answered by scoring the game's last four runs in an 8-4 triumph.

"It would have been another rough one today," Cards manager Mike Matheny said. "Especially having a two-run lead and watching it go away."

"One thing leads to another, things go bad. But this is our turnaround," shortstop Pete Kozma pledged after that victory. "The ball falls their way sometimes and the ball falls our way sometimes. We'll see where it falls this time."

"There's a lot of anticipation coming into the Cardinals series," Pirates lefty Jeff Locke said following Pittsburgh's latest loss. "Everybody's excited, everybody's ready to go, so I know it will be a challenge. I don't assume it's going to go the same way it went last time when they came to our place."

Does anyone have more reason to be steamed than Charlie Morton, who started the Bucs' lone loss in that series -- a 13-0 rout?

Maybe Adam Wainwright, who will oppose Morton in Tuesday night's series opener and who has three consecutive winless starts? Wainwright has not gone 0-for-4 since his first four starts of the 2012 season. To further pique Wainwright, the Pirates also have a history of roughing him up -- his 5.19 career ERA against Pittsburgh includes a 3-3 record and a 4.86 ERA in nine games at Busch.

"I'm always excited to take the ball," Wainwright said. "We pride ourselves in going out there and being the stopper, being the guy that the team can look on and count on you and depend on you."

"We're well aware of where we are in this season, we're well aware of the implications of the series," Morton said. "I think it's the attitude. I don't really sense a flux, I don't get the sense that there's a lot of highs and lows. I can sense the confidence. I don't really sense a change in attitude or perception."

And speaking of hurdles -- the one calling shots in the Bucs' dugout dismissed any hand-wringing over the three unnerving losses to the Rockies. Starters Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett were both rocked before a phantom balk call and third baseman Pedro Alvarez's throwing error led to a one-run loss.

"I like the guys and the resiliency of our team," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "There's different challenges that come with the season."

Matt Holliday, who has been hitting a lot of hard balls lately (24-for-55, for a .436 average since July 29 ), also hit the right note.

"When everything is going great, it's easy," said the Cards' left fielder. "But the sign of a championship team is how you react and get through tough times. That's the character that it takes to win a World Series."

The Cardinals would know that, having won one as recently as 2011. The Pirates? Their lost generation has been well-documented. Let's just say they are trying to go from the world of Garth Brooks ("Friends in Low Places") to that of Frank Sinatra ("High Society").

Come Tuesday at 8:15 p.m. ET, neither the teams' recent history of shared troubles, nor their longer history of contrasting fortunes will matter. Busch Stadium will be a rocking red sea of psyched fans, interrupted by scattered black-and-gold waves.

Both teams have injury-related questions hovering over outfielders crucial to their offenses, and hope Monday's off-day helps them return to playing health. Bucs leadoff man and left fielder Starling Marte has a left hand bruised by a pitch in Saturday night's game. Cards right fielder Carlos Beltran departed Sunday's game with a bruised right foot after fouling a ball of it. Officially, both are day to day.

One missing St. Louis piston -- catcher Yadier Molina -- definitely will merge back into the lineup, but not until the series finale on Thursday, when his 15-day DL clock runs out. In his absence, with a right-knee sprain, Molina may have proven his MVP merit -- the Cardinals went 5-7 without him.

After this set -- which will end either with the teams tied or the Pirates still on top -- the teams will have six meetings remaining, home-and-home series. So how big is this occasion? Bigger than the last encounter, because two more weeks have been wiped off the schedule.

And big enough for both managers to have juggled their starters. Held back, ace Wainwright leads off for Mike Matheny on eight days rest. Lifetime, Wainwright is 10-6 with a 2.78 ERA starting on six-plus days rest.

Morton takes his regular turn opposite Wainwright, though also with an extra day of rest due to Monday's off day -- which has allowed Hurdle to bump rookie Gerrit Cole, and instead follow with Liriano and Burnett. They will face Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn, respectively.

With both teams slightly staggering in, momentum will be up for grabs.

"I know our guys are looking forward to playing them again after how he played in Pittsburgh. We played hard, things ended up on the wrong side for us. We're anxious about it," Matheny said. "We're going to do it one at a time and I still believe that that's the best way to go about it, but there's a little added excitement here with them coming into town and something to prove. We're a better team than what we showed in Pittsburgh."

"It all depends on how you get out of the blocks with your starting pitcher," said Hurdle. "We know we can play with them. We know we can beat them."

Because, they have: 7-3 this season, including two of three in Busch Stadium, way back in April.

Under Hurdle, the Bucs have gone 22-19 against the Cardinals since the start of 2011.

"They just seem to be grasping onto the mojo that they got going," Choate said of the Pirates. "And hopefully we can put a stop to that."

The biggest winners of this series could be the Cincinnati Reds, the division's defending champs who are lurking in third place and will play the Cubs (Monday through Wednesday) and the Brewers, with the guarantee of each win gaining them ground on one or the other.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.

Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Charlie Morton, Adam Wainwright