Rival Cardinals, Pirates open set at PNC Park

(SportsNetwork.com) - The St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates are set to square off in their second straight weekend series, this time at PNC Park as the National League Central Division rivals begin a three-game set.

These teams faced each other last weekend in St. Louis, where the Cardinals managed to sweep all three games, winning each by one run in extra innings.

The Cardinals have been on quite the tear, winning nine of their last 10 to wrap up a successful homestand and open a sizeable 6 1/2-game lead in the division. In fact, at 21-7, the club is off to its best start of the modern era.

"We just enjoy being together and seeing each other succeed," said closer Trevor Rosenthal, who recorded his 10th save on Thursday. "I think the model we've shown through this year is that we've shown we can encourage each other and keep pushing one another to get better. We're just happy to see the guy in front of us do well and the guys behind us do well."

St. Louis just took three of four from the second-place Chicago Cubs this week, including Thursday's 5-1 decision to clinch that series.

John Lackey allowed just one run and struck out 10 over 7 2/3 innings, while the offense tagged Cubs starter Jake Arrieta for five runs on nine hits despite being short-handed. Third baseman Matt Carpenter and outfielder Matt Holliday were both given the day off to rest but are expected back in the lineup for Friday's opener.

Pittsburgh sits two games below .500 after getting swept in St. Louis last weekend and then dropping two of three at home to the Cincinnati Reds.

But after being held to just one run in the first two games against Cincinnati, the Pirates' offense broke out in Thursday's 7-2 win to avoid the sweep.

Andrew McCutchen had three of Pittsburgh's 11 hits in that game, while A.J. Burnett went seven innings and gave up just two runs to earn his first win of 2015 and help end the team's five-game skid.

"I think the offense was the stopper (Thursday)," Burnett said. "They came out swinging the bat, and showed the determination not to quit, not to give up. We got some pros going through some stuff, but they aren't phased by it, and that's more important than anything."

Francisco Liriano gets the nod for the Bucs in Friday's opener. The left- hander faced these same Cardinals in St. Louis last weekend and went eight innings, yielding only one earned run on three hits. He had a no-hitter going through five innings and, despite not factoring into the decision, is now 4-1 with a 1.86 ERA in nine career starts against the Cards.

St. Louis will counter with Michael Wacha, who has been downright stingy with an unblemished 4-0 record and a 1.93 ERA. The right-hander has allowed one or fewer runs in four of his five starts and has failed to pitch into the seventh inning only once.