PITTSBURGH -- The road trip was built up to be a measuring stick, a chance for the Cardinals to assert themselves as the team to topple in the National League. Instead, the three-city, 11-day swing that brought the Cardinals out of July and into August morphed into all sorts of ugly.
And PNC Park, in particular, brought out the worst.
In a season that had few lulls and lows, the 97-win Cardinals had a nightmarish stay in Pittsburgh over the final week of July. Their other two trips to the Steel City went pretty poorly, too, which is why the club has been peppered with questions about the urgency to change its Pittsburgh fortunes in time to extend their season.
If the Cardinals want to play deeper into October, they will have to win at least once on Pittsburgh's home field, a venue where they sloshed to a 3-7 record this year. Two more losses here and the Cardinals' season will be over by Monday night.
"Every time we come here, it seems like they have been pitching good against us and we haven't been able to do anything against them," Carlos Beltran said. "Every time we come here we face Liriano, and Liriano has been able to pitch good against us."
That same Francisco Liriano -- who is 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA against the Cardinals this season -- will start Game 3 on Sunday (3:30 p.m. CT on TBS) in a Division Series notched at 1.
"Every time we face somebody, if we haven't learned something or put together a better propose, than shame on us," manager Mike Matheny said. "The guys have worked hard to try and get ahead of it and try and figure out ways, and we're going to continue to do so. We have a game plan we'll take into tomorrow."
The Cardinals presented few theories when asked about their troubles along the banks of the Allegheny River. Several players said that PNC Park is among their favorite Major League ballparks, and the consensus is that the park plays fair to all fields. Yet, in their 10 head-to-head games here, the Pirates out-homered the Cardinals, 7-0, and batted .275 to the Cardinals' .226.
St. Louis' rotation posted a 5.04 ERA in those 10 games. Pittsburgh? A 3.18 mark.
"I think it's more just the team," Matt Adams said of those PNC Park woes. "They're a good ballclub and they play us tough."
It was during the Cardinals' second of three regular-season trips to Pittsburgh that their concerns about the Pirates being serious challengers were confirmed. That extended stay -- which included five games and the non-waiver Trade Deadline falling in a four-day span -- cost the Cardinals the division lead as well as their chance to make a statement about their ability to play the Pirates tough in Pittsburgh.
It was, as general manager John Mozeliak said recently, the low-watermark of the season.
"The only time [this season] that I felt like things were in not great shape was when we played those five games in Pittsburgh," Mozeliak said. "Who knows what that series looks like if we win that first game. But we don't. That ended up creating a sort of reeling effect for our club."
After losing the opening game of the series, the Cardinals had a dismal day two. They lost the first end of a doubleheader on Alex Presley's walk-off hit before being shut out by little-known Brandon Cumpton in the nightcap. By the end of that evening, the Cardinals had also lost their NL Central lead and, more critically, their starting catcher.
On the eve of the Trade Deadline, Yadier Molina was ruled out indefinitely due to a right knee injury.
"I remember thinking that night, not having good thoughts," Mozeliak said. "I probably didn't go to bed until close to 4 in the morning looking at the catching market."
Mozeliak ultimately decided to stand pat with his roster, opting against making a knee-jerk reaction amid the reel. Matheny guarded against panic while preaching patience. Players promised a resurgence.
"We're confident we have a team that can go out there and win games," Adam Wainwright said after the team also lost the fourth game of the series. "Now it's time to see what we're made of."
The Cardinals answered with a convincing 13-0 win to take the series finale, though they did go on to lose a late-August series on their final return trip. Even still, they came out of the midseason dip quickly enough to eventually overtake the Pirates in the end.
Though the personnel is nearly the same now as it was then, the Cardinals believe they return to Pittsburgh with a team ready to rise in a stadium where they have been perpetually knocked down. First place was on the line then. Aspirations of a deep postseason run are at stake now.
"We were on a rough stretch at that time," Shelby Miller said. "We weren't playing good baseball. Our confidence level now is pretty high. We're trained to win with this organization. We're playing good baseball right now. We have a good chance, not only to win this series, but the whole thing, to go to the World Series."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.