Surging Bucs ready for next bout with Cards

Despite sustained run of excellence, Pittsburgh still trails St. Louis in NL Central

Surging Bucs ready for next bout with Cards

PITTSBURGH -- It took Michael Morse less than a week with the Pirates to figure out what everyone else in Pittsburgh has learned over the course of the last four months.

"If it wasn't for the Cardinals, you would hear a lot more about the Pirates," Morse said Friday. "The Cardinals, they just can't lose right now."

It's been a recurring theme this season, a frustrating, "Yeah, but ..." that follows most mentions of Pittsburgh's success. As good as the Pirates have been, the Cardinals still carry a five-game National League Central lead into Tuesday's series opener at Busch Stadium.

The Pirates set their eyes this past spring on a division title. To make that a reality, they'll have to hold off the surging Cubs and, of course, find a way to get past the Cards.

"This group is fighting to win the division and this group is not going to stop fighting to win the division until it is mathematically impossible," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "That remains our goal."

Alvarez's walk-off single

The Pirates have played like a division winner. With their current record, they would lead every other division in the Majors except the American League Central.

The Bucs are 52-28 since May 9, the best record in the Majors. But the Cardinals (49-33 during that stretch) check in just behind them.

How evenly matched are these two clubs? They've split 10 matchups this year, with the Cards outscoring the Pirates by one run, 39-38. Half of their games have required extra innings, and two of those took 14 innings to decide.

"I don't think they think we're going to let them have anything," said Bucs left-hander Jeff Locke, who will start Tuesday. "It's been exciting so far. I expect nothing different."

"Exciting" might be an understatement for two of their recent meetings. First there was the "World Cup soccer" series, as Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called it, from May 1-3 in St. Louis. The Cardinals swept the Bucs with three one-run extra-inning victories in a series that featured a total of 11 runs.

Pittsburgh responded just before the All-Star break, beating St. Louis three straight times to win a four-game set at PNC Park. The last two were dramatic nationally-televised walk-off victories featuring late heroics from Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco.

That pulled the Pirates to within 2 1/2 games of the Cards at the time, as close as they've been since April.

But that series also seemed to send a message that the Bucs weren't going to concede the division quietly. They'll have three more chances to show it this week.

"I wouldn't say we're making a statement. That series is over with," McCutchen said. "We've got a new one coming up. They're going to be ready to go, and so are we."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.