As the Pittsburgh Pirates evolved from punching bags to a perennial contender, the St. Louis Cardinals remained their nemesis.
However, if the first six games of the teams' season series this year is any indication, Pittsburgh might be seizing control. The Pirates scored a season-opening sweep at PNC Park, then took two of three last month in Busch Stadium.
"It's always going to be a spirited series," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said after an 8-5 victory over St. Louis on May 8. "They play hard to the finish, and they have a lot of the same characteristics that we have. That being said, we were within a bad bounce of sweeping them here."
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Hurdle and the Pirates get their next chance Friday night when they welcome the Cardinals to town for a weekend series, and Pittsburgh appears to have a favorable matchup to start the series.
Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole (5-4, 2.85 ERA) owns a 5-3 career record with a 2.91 ERA in 11 starts against the Cardinals, including the aforementioned 8-5 win last month in which he yielded two runs over six innings while fanning seven.
Meanwhile, St. Louis starter Michael Wacha (2-6, 5.16) hasn't won a game since April 23 in San Diego and is coming off another uneven outing. Wacha gave up six hits and four runs over five innings Saturday night against the San Francisco Giants. He was bailed out of a seventh straight loss by an offense that wiped out a 4-0 deficit by cracking four homers in a nine-batter stretch to produce a 7-4 decision.
The Cardinals are at least coming into Pittsburgh with a bit of momentum. They have won six of their last nine games, including a 3-2 victory Thursday night in Cincinnati that pushed them to a season-high four games above .500 at 32-28.
What's more, St. Louis finally might be getting catcher Yadier Molina back into a groove with the bat. After enduring a 1-for-39 skid that dropped his average into the .250s, Molina has hits in four straight games, including a 3-for-4 outing Thursday night that included a tiebreaking single in the eighth inning.
"Lately, I've started seeing the ball better and feeling better," he said. "I have a good base and a good stance. When you don't feel right at the plate, you start thinking about stuff."
As for the Pirates (32-28), they lost 11-5 Thursday at Colorado in a makeup game, leaving Cole in Pittsburgh. They also left starting pitcher Jeff Locke in for 4 2/3 innings to give up 11 hits and 11 runs in an attempt to save a bullpen taxed by a doubleheader and an extra-inning game against the New York Mets the previous two days.
The series' other pitching matchups feature the Cardinals' Carlos Martinez (6-5, 3.76) against the Pirates' Francisco Liriano (4-5, 5.25) Saturday night, followed by Mike Leake (4-4, 4.22) opposing Jon Niese (6-2, 3.93) in the series finale late Sunday afternoon.
The teams enter the series tied for second place in the NL Central, 10 games behind the Chicago Cubs.