Cardinals' playoff push continues this weekend at Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH -- The St. Louis Cardinals have a short, steep climb if they are going to push their way into the playoffs.

Next up is a club, the Pittsburgh Pirates, that could be spoilers after they got a confidence shot in their last game.

St. Louis opens a three-game set Friday at PNC Park, its final road series.

The Cardinals finished a series sweep atCincinnati with an 8-5 victory Thursday to reach 80 wins (80-72) and keep themselves five games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs in the National League Central. In a more realistic situation, St. Louis is 1 1/2 games behind Colorado for the final wild-card spot. Milwaukee is one back of the Rockies.

Pittsburgh (69-84) was off Thursday but might still have been basking a bit after breaking a seven-game losing streak Wednesday with a walk-off, 6-4 victory over the Brewers.

"It's great. It's like you popped a balloon. It's awesome," Pirates starter Steven Brault said after a no-decision. "There's no (more) pressure.

"Realize that it's been a tough little stretch, but we're still a good team. We're still putting good at-bats together. The pitchers are coming out and pitching. It's just that things weren't going our way. Hopefully, that will change and we can end the season with a really positive eight, nine wins at the end of the year. That would be pretty awesome."

That would be disastrous for St. Louis if it happens this weekend.

"We know every game is precious right now, and we just have to get back to winning some ballgames," Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha, who is scheduled to start Friday, said after his most recent outing."We know that we have a lot of games left with the guys ahead of us, and it's up to us to go out there and win those games."

Wacha (12-8, 4.02 ERA) took the loss Saturday in a 4-1 game against the Cubs. He pitched 5 2/3 innings but was hurt by five walks and a few defensive lapses by his teammates.

Wacha is 5-3 with a 3.91 ERA in 14 career games (13 starts) against Pittsburgh.

The Pirates will counter with Ivan Nova (11-14, 4.20 ERA).

Nova is 2-8 with a 6.22 ERA in 11 starts since the All-Star break and could be tiring. He has set career highs in innings (180) and starts (29) this season.He hasn't had a win since Aug. 20 -- against St. Louis in the MLB Little League Classic.

In addition, Novaleft his previous start in the seventh inning because of right calf discomfort. He said it was minor and predicted he would be fine for his next start, and that's how it has played out.

In that most recent start, Nova gave up a go-ahead run before the calf problem drove him from what was a 2-1 loss to Cincinnati.

"(During) some tough times like I've been going through, it's easy to say, 'Don't think about it,'" Nova said, "but in the back of your mind you think about it."

Nova is 1-2 with a 4.82 ERA in three career starts, all this season, against the Cardinals. That includes a 7-0 Pittsburgh loss to Wacha and St. Louis on Sept. 10, when he gave up five runs in five innings.