Pirates open crucial set with Cardinals in Steel City

The Pittsburgh Pirates were hoping that last weekend's marathon win over the St. Louis Cardinals would provide a spark on the way to their first playoff appearance since 1992.

Instead, the Pirates have struggled since the 19-inning victory and hope to get right on Monday against those same Cardinals in the opener of a three-game series.

Pittsburgh has lost five of six since taking the rubber match over St. Louis, getting swept in three games by the San Diego Padres before dropping two of three to the Milwaukee Brewers. The Pirates were blanked in Sunday's rubber match, falling 7-0.

The Pirates now sit two games back of the Cardinals for the second wild card spot in the NL.

Erik Bedard was charged with six runs over 4 2/3 innings to take the loss on Sunday.

"I made some good pitches early, and then they started hitting the ball around," Bedard said.

Things won't get easier for the Pirates in this opener as they go up against Cardinals right-hander Kyle Lohse, who is 13-2 through 26 starts and is second in the league with a 2.61 earned run average. He hasn't lost since June 15 and won his seventh decision in a row on Wednesday versus the Houston Astros.

Lohse limited the Astros to three hits over seven innings, though two were solo homers in a 4-2 win. However, the 33-year-old did not walk a batter and allowed two runs or fewer for the 11th time over his 12-start unbeaten streak.

"I felt real solid mechanically," Lohse said. "I felt like I was hitting my spot, changing speeds, doing things I needed to be successful."

Lohse has been solid over his career versus the Pirates, going 8-2 with a 3.41 ERA. That includes a win in his lone outing against them this year as he scattered a run and six hits over seven innings on April 22.

The Cardinals have won six of their last eight to surpass the Pirates in the wild card race and pulled within six games of first place in the NL Central by knocking off the current leaders, the Cincinnati Reds, on Sunday.

Matt Holliday and Allen Craig combined for seven RBI in the 8-2 win, with Holliday driving in four while finishing a homer shy of the cycle. Craig, meanwhile, had a two-run homer and an RBI single.

"He's got that knack of getting the big hit," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Craig.

St. Louis leads the Los Angeles Dodgers by 1 1/2 games for the NL's final playoff spot and square off on Monday against the Pirates' A.J. Burnett, who is 15-4 with a 3.63 ERA in 23 starts this season. That includes a pair of polar opposite starts against the Cardinals.

Burnett made his Pirates debut on April 21 with seven scoreless innings of three-hit ball, but the righty was pounded for 12 runs on 12 hits over 2 2/3 innings of a loss two starts later. That leaves him 5-4 lifetime in his matchup with a 4.29 ERA.

The 35-year-old is 1-1 with a 6.75 ERA over his last three starts overall, yielding 14 runs over 18 2/3 frames. He did not factor into a 7-5 loss to the San Diego Padres on Tuesday, matching a season worst with 12 hits and walking a season-high five batters while yielding four runs with seven strikeouts over 6 1/3 innings.

The Pirates and Cardinals have split 12 meetings this season.