The Pittsburgh Pirates grabbed the NL Central lead from St. Louis when the Cardinals visited PNC Park one month ago, taking four of five to set the wheels in motion for a run at their first division title since 1992.
The next 10 days should determine just how realistic that possibility may be.
Now a game behind the Cardinals, the Pirates hope Francisco Liriano can pull them into a first-place tie Friday night as they host St. Louis for the first of critical back-to-back weekend series.
Pittsburgh (77-56) went from 1 1/2 games behind the Cardinals to 1 1/2 up after that five-game series concluded Aug. 1, but St. Louis (78-55) has won 12 of 17 and is back on top after taking two of three from Cincinnati.
Even with Wednesday's 10-0 loss, Carlos Beltran is feeling good about a lineup that leads the NL in runs, on-base percentage and average with runners in scoring position.
"Right now, with (Matt) Carpenter just having the year that he's having, I'm hitting second and I'm getting on base, Matt Holliday hitting third, getting hot ... (Allen) Craig being able to do it all year round, being able to drive in that many runs, it feels great," Beltran told the Cardinals' official website. "And Yadier Molina, you know, leading the league in hitting. It doesn't get better than that."
Thursday's 4-0 loss to Milwaukee dropped the Pirates to 12-14 this month, including a pair of extra-inning losses in a three-game set at Busch Stadium from Aug. 13-15. Catcher John Buck, who came over along with Marlon Byrd from the Mets on Tuesday, admitted Pittsburgh may have been looking ahead.
"I knew we were playing Milwaukee but we couldn't help but think how exciting the series with the Cardinals is going to be," Buck said. "That's why the Pirates went out and got us, for games like that."
Pittsburgh is 8-5 against St. Louis in 2013, and it should have a good idea where its division hopes stand Sept. 8. Following next weekend's series at Busch Stadium, nine of the Pirates' final 20 games come against teams currently in playoff position. None of the Cardinals' final 19 are against a team that appears to be headed to the postseason.
Even if St. Louis' remaining opponents aren't intimidating, they may not be too excited to see Liriano (14-6, 2.74 ERA) on the hill Friday. The left-hander held the Cardinals to a run and four hits over seven innings in a 9-2 win at PNC on July 29, then went the distance in a 5-1 win in St. Louis on Aug. 14.
"This guy was nasty," Carpenter said after Liriano's second complete game of the season.
He was anything but in his latest start, yielding four runs and nine hits over four innings in a 6-3 loss at San Francisco on Saturday, but Liriano has proven to be an awfully effective stopper. Friday will be his ninth start immediately following a Pirates loss - excluding the first game after the All-Star break - and he's gone 7-1 with a 0.75 ERA.
"From the beginning until now," manager Clint Hurdle told the team's official website, "he's proven things to people that he probably wanted to prove some things to."
Shelby Miller (12-8, 2.90) has proven to have top-of-the-rotation stuff in his first full season in the majors, and his arsenal was on full display Saturday against Atlanta. The Cardinals right-hander held the Braves to a solo homer and two other hits over seven innings in a 6-2 win.
"I thought that's probably about as good as we've seen him in a long time," manager Mike Matheny said. "His stuff was electric and he was in the lower part of the zone.
"He was really locked in, hopefully that's something he can maintain."
Miller was less than sharp when opposing Liriano earlier this month. He matched a season high by giving up five runs - three earned - as Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones took him deep.
Lefties are hitting .268 against the rookie, while right-handers are batting .187.
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