Jeff Gordon previews today’s game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates at 7:15 p.m. at Busch Stadium (FSM).
THE STAKES: The Cardinals missed an opportunity to chip a game off Cincinnati’s seven-game lead in the National League Central. They also fell behind the Pirates again in the wild card race. This Pittsburgh series was already huge, but Thursday night’s 2-1, come-from-ahead loss to the visiting Diamondbacks upped the ante.
PITCHING FOR THE CARDINALS: Jake Westbrook (12-8, 3.62 ERA). He has won five consecutive starts while posting a 2.94 ERA during that span. But the Pirates are one of his least favorite opponents. In 11 career appearances (including seven starts) against them, he is 1-5 with a 5.18 ERA.
Many Pirates have hit Westbrook well, including Pedro Alvarez (6 for 13, homer, five RBIs), Andrew McCutchen (6 for 16, double, RBI), Neil Walker (6 for 17, triple, three RBIs) and Clint Barmes (5 for 16, double, two RBIs).
PITCHING FOR THE PIRATES: James McDonald (10-5, 3.77 ERA). He is 1-2 with an 8.71 ERA in six starts since the All-Star break, prompting speculation that Pittsburgh will need to move him to the bullpen to straighten him out. But he has fared well against the Cardinals in his career, going is 2-1 with a 3.38 ERA in eight appearances – including four starts.
Yadier Molina (3 for 7, double, homer, three RBIs), Rafael Furcal (3 for 6, double, RBI) and Allen Craig (3 for 8, double, homer, two RBIs) have done the most damage against McDonald.
LINEUP INTRIGUE: Shortstop Rafael Furcal is 6 for 13 in his last four starts, so manager Mike Matheny may be tempted to move him up in the batting order from the No. 8 slot. Center fielder Jon Jay has gone hitless in his last two games in the leadoff spot.
BULLPEN INTRIGUE: Closer Jason Motte hadn’t blown a save and lost a game since back on June 17, so Thursday night’s disaster isn’t an immediate cause for concern. Matheny had to call on former closer Fernando Salas to get the Cardinals out of the ninth inning, but he will be eager to get Motte right back into a save situation.
DOWN ON THE FARM: Top pitching prospect Shelby Miller won again for Memphis on Thursday night, beating Salt Lake City 5-3 for his third consecutive victory. He threw five shutout innings, allowing just two hits, before allowing three runs in the sixth inning.
Circumstances forced handyman Steven Hill to fill a key RBI role for the Class AAA Redbirds. He smacked a three-run homer in Thursday night’s victory. Hill catches and plays the corner infield and outfield roles for Memphis.
“He plays them all adequately," Memphis manager Pop Warner told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "He's a valuable guy to have on the team because he's versatile. He provides some power. He's a solidifier in our lineup. He's done a nice job. Any time you can add to your value, it's important. It's good for him to be able to play multiple positions and not just be stuck at one.”
Hill had brief stints with the Cardinals earlier this season and back in 2010, when he made the leap from Double-A Springfield. He could add some bench power and versatility as a September call-up – and he could free back-up catcher Tony Cruz to play a bigger role.
Elite pitching prospect Carlos Martinez had his toughest outing since June for Springfield, lasting just four innings in a 7-4 victory over San Antonio. He allowed four runs, three earned, on seven hits and four walks. Utility player Jermaine Curtis went 3-for-4 with three runs scored and two RBIs.
Third baseman Stephen Piscotty was 2 for 3 with two runs scored, a triple and an RBI as Quad Cities rolled over Cedar Rapids 8-1. He is batting .281 with an .824 OPS.
Pitcher Jhonny Polanco, signed out of Nicaragua, threw five shutout inning for the Gulf Coast League Cardinals at the rookie league level. The 6-foot-3 righthander is 1-3 and 2.03 ERA in 14 games, including six starts. He has 35 strikeouts in 31 innings.
He pitched for two seasons in the Cardinals’ now-defunct team in the Venezuelan Summer League. Polanco pitched in the Dominican Summer League in 2011.