Cardinals' exploding offense is giving pitchers room for error

PITTSBURGH -- Offense has been king through the first half of an important four-game series between National League Central rivals St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

The Cardinals have 22 runs and 28 hits through two games, both wins over the Pirates, who have 17 runs and 25 hits.

"The offense has really been doing a great job," Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter said after Friday's 11-10 game that turned into a nail-biter. "Guys have really settled into their roles and (are) just swinging the bats with a lot of confidence, making it tough on the opposing pitcher and grinding out at-bats."

The final two games of the series Saturday and Sunday could help shape the division. If the Cardinals (63-59) earn a sweep, it could improve their chances of overtaking the Chicago Cubs to win the division -- their win Friday pushed them into second, a half-game ahead of Milwaukee, and kept them 1 1/2 games out of first -- and at the same time potentially bury the Pirates (58-64), who have lost six straight.

"The quality of the baseball we've played in the last 2 1/2 months has been pretty good, and that's why we are where we are," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "Now the offense has come around, we feel as good as we feel all year about contending and trying to win this division. We're in position to do that."

While Pittsburgh has fallen 6 1/2 games behind Chicago, the Pirates are still feeling good about themselves after they made late, though fruitless, comebacks in both games so far this series.

"They played. They continued to play. They continued to fight," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said after Pittsburgh came back from an eight-run deficit to get within one Friday.

"They worked well in the dugout together. They continued to talk baseball. We (had) lost five in a row, we're down (11-3), and the conversations they had, nobody backed off. Just keep playing."

Understandably, Matheny is just as satisfied with St. Louis' resilience.

"Guys are continuing to grind, and I think our offense is better right now," Matheny said. "This is the offense that they need to keep fresh in their minds. It does give our pitching a little bit of room for error."

On Saturday, right-hander Michael Wacha (9-5, 3.85 ERA) willstart. He is 6-2 with a 2.68 ERA in his past eight starts.

His last time out, Wacha sustained his first career August loss in 17 starts. He gave up four runs and eight hits, including Brandon Phillips' 407-foot homer, with one walk and one strikeout in five innings of St. Louis' 6-3 loss to Atlanta on Sunday.

While Matheny lamented a lack of run support for Wacha in that game, Wacha shouldered the blame.

"I just gave up too many runs for us," Wacha told mlb.com.

Atlanta remains the only National League opponent against which Wacha has not won. That's not a problem with the Pirates. Against Pittsburgh, he is 4-2 with a 3.94 ERA in 12 career appearances, including 11 starts.

Chad Kuhl (5-8, 4.64 ERA) is 3-2 with a 3.35 ERA in his past nine starts and has allowed more than two earned runs just four times in his past 14 starts.

His last time out, however, he gave up five runs (four earned) and four hits in five innings with five walks and five strikeouts on Sunday in Pittsburgh's 7-1 loss to Toronto. The thing was, all five of those Blue Jays runs came in a 40-pitch first inning.

"You'd like a redo or reset button in that first inning," Kuhl told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It kind of stinks to start off that way, but it's all behind you then. Do your best to go (forward) … I felt fine in innings two through five. Just a tough start."

Hurdle said Kuhl was stung by "below-average command" and left pitches up in.

It would be timely for Kuhl to solve the Cardinals this series. Kuhl is 0-2 with a 5.50 ERA in four career starts against St. Louis.