Cardinals head to Pittsburgh hot (under the collar)

PITTSBURGH -- Two teams scrambling to make headway in the National League Central will clash when the St. Louis Cardinals open a four-game set Thursday against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Neither is coming in hot, unless it's maybe hot under the collar.

St. Louis (61-59) blew a two-run lead in the ninth -- an inning that included Cardinals manager Mike Matheny getting ejected -- Wednesday night and fell 5-4 to the Boston Red Sox. The Cardinals took their third loss in a row.

Pittsburgh (58-62) blew a 4-0 lead and allowed five homers Wednesday in a 7-6 loss at Milwaukee, the Pirates' fourth straight setback.

The Cardinals are 5-4 against the Pirates this season.

The first three games of the series will be held at PNC Park, followed by the first MLB Little League Classic on Sunday night in Williamsport, Pa.

St. Louis had won eight straight, at one point pulling into a first-place tie in the division, before the current losing streak.

Going into the series at Pittsburgh, the third-place Cardinals are three games ahead of the fourth-place Pirates and 2 1/2 games behind the division-leading Chicago Cubs. The Milwaukee Brewers are tucked in the mix in second place, a game in front of St. Louis.

The Pirates have rallied several times this season but keep falling into the cusp of being realistically out of the hunt for a playoff spot.It helps that they are in a weak division, and the series against St. Louis represents yet another chance to stay in contention.

Losing Wednesday hurt in more than one way. It not only extended Pittsburgh's losing streak and came against a division opponent ahead in the standings, but it led to a downcast postgame clubhouse.

"We wanted to win this one bad," starting and losing pitcher Gerrit Cole said.

At 21-23 within the division, the Pirates need wins in the series just as badly. Of course, St. Louis needs the victories, too.

St. Louis veteran Adam Wainwright (12-5, 4.87 ERA) is scheduled to start the series opener Thursday.

Wainwright has dealt with some elbow soreness and skipped his between-starts bullpen session but is expected to take his normal turn in the rotation after he played catch Tuesday with no problem.

On Friday, the soreness kept Wainwright from throwing a pitch 90 mph or more, and he didn't have a strikeout, but it didn't stop him from posting his fifth win in as many decisions. He gave up one run on four hits in five innings during an 8-5 win over the Atlanta Braves.

Wainwright, who is four strikeouts from reaching 100 for the eighth time in his career, likened the pain to what he felt in 2014.

"A little inflamed area in my joint," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "In '14, it was a couple of weeks, and I had it one time earlier this year, and it was gone after one start."

Wainwright is 13-7 with a 4.11 ERA in 34 career games (29 starts) against the Pirates, including 6-4 with a 5.23 ERA in 16 games (13 starts) at PNC Park.

For Pittsburgh, Jameson Taillon (7-5, 4.50) will be looking for his third straight quality start Thursday after he had allowed a total of 17 earned runs in two starts.

Taillon allowed two runs in six-plus innings Friday and struck out seven in a 4-2 win at Toronto. He will be looking to get above .500 at home, where he is 3-3 in nine starts.

Taillon is 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA in three career starts against the Cardinals.