By Harry Stephenson
For the Cardinal Nation Show
(The Cardinal Nation Show) -- At 7:15 Friday evening, the Cardinals (40-36) return home after nine away games that earned them a 6-3 record. Those nine games, which show a struggling team finding some success in reversing their quasi-skid (as the first 20 days of June left the Cards 8-11 with multiple scares of dropping below .500 and a team batting average of .251) may be the beginning of this season's next chapter-a pleasant return from a long stint where the DL seemed longer than the roster, and the bullpen's effectiveness could have been equated to a coin toss.
While those nine interleague matches allowed the Cards to take advantage of the AL's designated hitter provision, the lasting effect-confidence-is strong, and will lend itself to future success: more batters are finding balls, more linchpin-players are returning to roster spots, and the bullpen is (hopefully) expected to follow suit by maturing and implementing a little more stability.
Although Wednesday's game snapped the season-longest five-game win streak for St. Louis, the wave of success has reminded the reigning World Series Champions that nobody will give them a win: if they want it, they have to bare their fangs and snatch it.
The reinvigorated squad is set to back up starter Adam Wainwright in the series opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates (39-35), who will begin with righty Kevin Correia on the mound. The two teams are both two games out the NL Central's top slot, and this series could mean all the difference as each side seeks to assert dominance in their division, and end the flirting match that has had St. Louis and Pittsburg dancing around the second place position for nearly a month.
This will be the first meet since the teams have been neck-and-neck in league standings.
RHP Adam Wainwright is seeking to add a win to the Cardinals' 4-2 record against the Pirates this season, and put the "advantage" back into "home field advantage"-something clearly lacking in the teams last spout of home games that earned them a 4-5 record and .267 overall batting average.
Wainwright's career performance against the Pirates shows an 8-3 record, but with a 4.79 ERA and only 73 strikes, it stands slightly worse than his performance this season which has earned him a 6-7 record and 4.32 ERA.
Wainwright has experience with most hitters on Pittsburgh's lineup, and unlike the majority of St. Louis' immature bullpen, he's held them to a .217 batting average this season, allowing four runs on five hits (two of which were homers by heavy sluggers Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata) in the Pirates' 23 at-bats.
Further, Wainwright has been honing his pitches recently, earning a 3.32 ERA for his last ten starts, which brought his 5.16 ERA on May 5th steadily down to his current 4.32.
The veteran pitcher has allowed no more than three hits in his past eight starts (with the exception of the June 1st match against the Mets) and in that time threw a complete game: a shut-out against the Padres on May 22nd.
For his last three starts he boasts a 2.14 ERA and 19 strikeouts over 21 innings. Perhaps Wainwright's rocky start could be attributed to missing the entirety of last season, but the Cardinals' pitcher appears to have gained a steady foothold as he allowed 20 runs in his first five games and only 24 in the subsequent ten games and, he allowed seven homeruns in those first five starts, but only one in that ten game period.
Looking at his recent progression, Wainwright may be taking over the momentum created by Lance Lynn, who has faltered in recent appearances-at least that is what St. Louis fans are hoping. If Wainwright either matches or improves upon his recent trend (and his history against Pittsburgh), and the offense continues its slugging success, the Cardinals could take another huge stride towards the light at the end of this season's dark tunnel.
Kevin Correia (3-6, 4.03 ERA) is going to have a lot on the line when he steps on to the mound, as his recent pitching is less promising than his counterpart-to-be.
While his ERA is lower than Wainwright's, the Pirates have found less and less success behind him this season.
His last ten starts resulted in a 2-5 record and a 4.66 ERA-not too promising, considering he pitched only five or six innings in the majority of those appearances, and accumulated only 22 strikes.
He did make it to the seventh twice, but once he only survived through the third, which was long enough to allow six runs, four walks, and a single strikeout; however, his last three starts could be a positive step out of his slump, as he gave up no runs in one five-inning start, and allowed a combined six runs in the other two starts.
He has not thrown against the Redbirds this season, but he does have experience with many of the Cardinals' batters: in his entire career against the Cards, he put up a 2-3 record with a 3.86 ERA and 25 strikeouts over 46 innings-a record that indicates anything but an easy battle for the Pirates.
If Correa can hold the Cards back while his offense digs into the bullpen, St. Louis may walk out of Busch Stadium with their heads hung low: relief pitching is their most prevalent problem right now, and Pittsburgh will need to take advantage of that if they want to put the Cardinals on another losing streak.