ST. LOUIS -- One of the keys to pitching well in important games in September, according to Michael Wacha of the St. Louis Cardinals, is not to approach them differently than any other game in the season.
"Everyone knows we are going to be playing playoff-atmosphere-type games coming down September to try to get to the postseason," Wacha said, "but I think the main thing is just trying to focus on your next start, your next pitch, and not let your mind wander too far out ahead."
That's what he will try to do Sunday as he starts for the Cardinals against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who will counter with right-hander Ivan Nova.
Wacha has struggled late in past seasons, however. He has a career September record of 5-5 with a 5.63 ERA, his highest for any month of the season.
The Cardinals are fighting for their playoff lives. Their 4-3 win over the Pirates on Saturday night left them three games behind the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central, and tied with the Milwaukee Brewers. Both the Brewers and Cardinals are chasing the Colorado Rockies for the second wild-card spot.
"It's why you're in the situation you're in now, because of what you've been doing earlier in the season," Wacha said. "It's all about learning from that and trying to get better each day and go out there and compete."
Wacha comes into this start with an 11-7 record and 4.21 ERA after winning his last two starts, at San Francisco and San Diego, allowing four earned runs in 12 innings. He has a career record of 4-3 with a 4.39 ERA in 13 games, including 12 starts, against the Pirates, including a 1-1 record with a 5.06 ERA in two starts this season.
Nova (11-12, 4.11 ERA) is 1-1 against the Cardinals with a 3.29 ERA, with his only two career starts against St. Louis coming this season. That includes a 2-1 loss at St. Louis on April 17, when he threw a 78-pitch complete game.
Nova has struggled in the second half of the season, going 2-6 with a 6.37 ERA in eight starts.He is winless in his last six starts on the road, dating to July 8.
Even though the Pirates, who have lost four games in a row, have dropped out of the playoff race, they will have a say in which teams get there. They have 10 games left against the Brewers and Cardinals -- six with Milwaukee and four against St. Louis.
"You would rather be on the other side of it, playing them," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "However, you get an opportunity to come to Busch Stadium and play before a packed house against a good ballclub. Everybody that's out there is engaged. These young guys are getting opportunities. It's the biggest crowds they've played in front of all year, maybe in their career.
"They are meaningful games, they are meaningful innings and they are meaningful at-bats."
Wacha will try to continue a surge that has seen the Cardinals win eight of their last 10 games, including the first two games of their three-game set with Pittsburgh.
"I feel good where we are as a team," Wacha said. "We've been pitching well. (Luke) Weaver has done an outstanding job and given us a great chance to win ballgames. Try to feed off one another and keep using that momentum going into the next game."
Weaver has won each of his last four starts, including a victory against Pittsburgh on Friday.