St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates battles could be best of second half

The St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates have rarely played meaningful games against one another after the All-Star Break in the past 20 years, but this year their second-half matchups could be the most intriguing of the year.

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The Cardinals lead the Pirates by one game in the National League Central Division at the break, but the two teams have played just five times in the first half of the season, which leaves 14 games for the final two-and-a-half months of the season that could decide the NL Central.

Those games might not have the intensity of the 2003 and 2004 battles between the Cardinals and Chicago Cubs or the rivalry games in recent years between the Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, but for once the late-season trips to Pittsburgh will be highlights on the schedule rather than afterthoughts.

The Pirates have had good first halves the past two seasons. They were four games above .500 at this point in 2011 and nine games above .500 at the same time in 2012, but each time they fell back dramatically. They finished 18 games under .500 in 2011 and four games below .500 in 2012.

This time the Pirates are 19 games above .500 with 69 games left in the season.

Five of those games will be against the Cardinals at the end of July at PNC Park in Pittsburgh in a series that will likely set the tone for the second half.

The Cardinals and Pirates were scheduled to play a four-game series July 29 through Aug. 1, but a rainout April 16 added another game to the series and created a doubleheader July 30.

This could be a series similar to the five-game battle the Cardinals and Cubs played to begin September a decade ago in Chicago. The Cardinals entered that series in first place, one game ahead of the Cubs. They left Wrigley Field a game behind the Cubs after losing four of five. The Cubs went on to win the division, and the Cardinals finished third.

The Cardinals and Pirates will have nine games left against each other after the five-game series, but what is sure to be a hard-fought, nearly weeklong battle will likely go a long way toward determining the NL Central champion in 2013.

The Pirates have met crucial points in their seasons the past two years, and each time they fell apart afterward.

They lost a 19-inning game 4-3 to the Atlanta Braves July 26, 2011, which kicked of a 3-16 stretch that killed the Pirates’ chances. The next season they beat the Cardinals 6-3 in 19 innings Aug. 19, but they lost 10 of their next 13 games and again fell out of contention.

But this year the Pirates have a team with more depth in both the pitching staff and lineup.

The Pittsburgh staff has been one of the best in baseball through the first half of 2013. It has compiled the best team earned-run average at 3.07 to carry a lineup that has hit just .243, good for 26th in Major League Baseball.

Pirates starters A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke and Francisco Liriano have combined for a 21-11 record with a 2.40 ERA while rookie Gerrit Cole joined the team in June and promptly won his first four starts, although he dropped his next three and has a 3.89 ERA. But the Pittsburgh bullpen has been just as good.

Closer Jason Grilli came from obscurity to save 29 games with a 1.99 ERA in the first half, and the team has just one reliever, Tony Watson, who has appeared in more than 15 games and has an ERA above 2.72.

Even if the pitching staff doesn’t maintain those terrific numbers in the second half, the Pirates finally have a lineup with legitimate hitters, including all-stars Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, along with veteran catcher Russell Martin and promising second-year leadoff hitter Sterling Marte, who should keep the team from free-falling through the standings in the second half of the season.

However, the Cardinals are as good as they’ve ever been. They have arguably the best pitcher in the game, Adam Wainwright, who is 12-5 with a 2.45 ERA; and the best hitter, Yadier Molina, who leads the National League with a .341 batting average.

The Cardinals’ 57-36 record through 93 games is also their best start since they were 51-42 in 2008, they have baseball’s third-best pitching staff and third-best offense.

Yes, the Reds are five games behind the Cardinals and could certainly put together a second-half run to overtake both St. Louis and Pittsburgh, but right now the team from western Pennsylvania is the Cardinals biggest threat.

Luckily for baseball fans, two of the best teams in baseball will play about one-third of their remaining games against one another in what could be the best division race of 2013.

Enjoy.

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