This weekend is the last chance for the Cardinals to beat the Pirates themselves, as the National League Central's top two teams face off for the final time this season beginning on Friday night at Busch Stadium.
The first-place Pirates have a 1 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals, who lost their third of four games at Cincinnati on Thursday. It's the second consecutive weekend the two teams have played; the Bucs took two of three last weekend in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates have already assured themselves of the franchise's first non-losing season in 21 years, but that mark hasn't been the goal for a while. Instead they are hoping to remain atop the Central and clinch their first division crown since 1992.
The Cardinals have won seven division titles -- and two World Series -- in that span and are hoping to add an eighth. But they will have to beat and pass the Pirates to do that, starting on Friday with the veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett.
Burnett tossed seven innings of one-run ball against the Cardinals on Saturday in Pittsburgh. He is going for his fourth win of the season against the Cardinals, who have hit only .188 against him in five prior starts -- a mark that swelled to .310 in two Busch Stadium meetings.
"That's a pretty good lineup, so I'm just trying to keep the ball down, get ahead … then expand the strike zone a bit," Burnett said after his last start. "But you can't let down against that lineup, because that's when they get you."
The Cardinals' lineup won't be at full strength for the opener, or for the remainder of the series, after first baseman Allen Craig left Wednesday's game with a strained left foot. On Thursday an X-ray and an MRI confirmed that there is no fracture, but Craig is expected to wear a protective boot for a few days before being re-evaluated early next week.
"There's no fracture," manager Mike Matheny said. "That's a big positive for us."
Pirates: Goin' deep
Pittsburgh has an NL-high 78 home runs on the road, although it ranks only seventh overall in the league, with a total of 136. With 32 homers, team leader Pedro Alvarez is two shy of Aramis Ramirez's 2001 franchise record for a third baseman.
• Left-hander Jeff Locke described his Wednesday side session as "great, felt loose and refreshed, just on top of everything." He is set for his Saturday start in St. Louis.
Cardinals: Kelly on the mound
No one on the Cardinals' staff has been better over the last two months than right-hander Joe Kelly, who gets the ball in Friday's opener.
Kelly has won his last seven decisions, and the Redbirds are 9-1 in his starts since he moved into the rotation. He tossed six innings of one-run ball against the Pirates on Sunday.
• Second baseman Matt Carpenter hit his sixth triple on Thursday night, extending his NL-leading hits total to 170. He had collected his 46th double on Wednesday, tying him for the most by a primary second baseman for the Cards with Rogers Hornsby (1922), Sparky Adams (1931) and Frankie Frisch (1930).
• The Cardinals have hit .239 against left-handers this season and will face one southpaw starter in Locke on Saturday, but Matheny says that stat doesn't tell the whole story.
"We've had stretches of a few games where we've made left-handers pay," he said. "If you look at our lineup, it shouldn't matter. This is a team that shouldn't have that much of a problem against left-handers."
• The Pirates have won four of their last six. The Cardinals have lost six of their last eight.
• Cards outfielder Carlos Beltran is a .286 career hitter with 11 RBIs in his career against Burnett; Carpenter is hitting .400 against Burnett.