Jeff Gordon previews tonight's St. Louis Cardinals-Pittsburgh Pirates game at PNC Park (6:05 p.m., FSM):
THE STAKES: The Cardinals could have moved within 1 ½ games of the National League Central lead Tuesday, since the Reds took a 16-5 flogging at San Francisco. But once again the Cards wasted a golden opportunity.
Somehow, some way they managed to lose 4-3 at Pittsburgh -- blowing an early 2-0 lead for Adam Wainwright.
How will they bounce back from another agonizing loss? Can they avoid losing another series to a sub-.500 team?
PITCHING FOR THE CARDINALS: Jake Westbrook (1-1, 3.60 ERA): He has delivered solid performances in all four of his Cards starts. He has four career relief appearances against the Pirates, none since 2003.
PITCHING FOR THE PIRATES: Daniel McCutchen (1-5, 6.65 ERA): In his earlier start against the Cards, the righthander allowed four runs (three earned) in 5 2/3 innings. He gravitated toward a bullpen role this season and posted a 1.93 ERA in relief eight appearances this month. He is filling in for scheduled starter Jeff Karstens, who bowed out with arm fatigue.
Many Cards have gotten good swings at McCutchen, including Albert Pujols (2 for 3, homer), Yadier Molina (2 for 3, double), Pedro Feliz (1 for 2, double) and Felipe Lopez (1 for 3, walk).
LINEUP INTRIGUE: Colby Rasmus is still hobbled by his calf muscle strain, forcing the Cards to play with a short bench. Jon Jay (1 for 4, RBI Tuesday) continues to man center field in his absence. The Allen Craig/Skip Schumaker tandem went 2 for 4 with a run scored in the right field slot against the Pirates.
Craig's modest five-game hitting streak has pushed his batting average back over the Mendoza Line to .203. Baby steps!
Shortstop Brendan Ryan got another crack at the leadoff spot against Pittsburgh lefty Paul Maholm and went 0 for 4. Perhaps Schumaker (.354 on-base percentage in August) will return to that role tonight.
BULLPEN INTRIGUE: As expected, veteran lefty Dennis Reyes landed on the disabled list with his sore elbow. Fernando Salas responded to his sixth promotion from Memphis by pitching a scoreless inning Tuesday night.
His 2.35 ERA is second best among Cardinals relievers this season. But he could return to the Class AAA level again once Jason Motte (shoulder strain) wraps up his rehab assignment this weekend.
The demise of Reyes left Trever Miller as the only lefty in the bullpen. And there is nothing lefthanded at Memphis to pick from other than starter Evan MacLane, who could return to the Cards as middle relief protection in September.
Veteran Nate Robertson left Memphis to sign a minor-league deal with the Phillies, sensing no opportunity to advance with the Cardinals. And veteran lefty Renyel Pinto also moved on after similarly failing to impress at the Class AAA level.
DOWN ON THE FARM: Brandon Dickson won his 10th game of the year for Memphis, lasting 8 2/3 innings in an 8-2 victory at Omaha. He is 10-8 with a 3.25 ERA this season. He doesn't have electric stuff, but the Cards will have to give him a look-see at some point.
Nick Stavinoha continued his demolition of minor league pitching, going 4 for 5 in that victory with a homer and three RBI. He is batting .421 for the Redbirds this season with a 1.189 OPS. In 17 games, he has six homers and 24 RBI.
He figures to regain his pinch-hitting job with the Cards in September, when the rosters expand.