(Sports Network) - The National League Central is long way from being decided, but what happens this week in Pittsburgh could go a long way in determining the final outcome.
On Monday, the Pirates welcome the division-leading Cardinals to PNC Park for the start of a five-game series.
St. Louis holds a 1 1/2-game edge on the Pirates, who, of course haven't had a winning season since 1992. The teams will play a doubleheader on Tuesday and meet 14 times from now until the end of the year with eight of those contests occurring in the Steel City.
"I think the Cardinal series has been on a lot of the fans' dockets for some time now," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "I anticipate seeing a very faithful Pirate crowd there Monday."
Pittsburgh missed a golden opportunity to gain ground on the Cardinals this weekend, as St. Louis was swept in a three-game set in Atlanta. The Pirates, though, have lost three of four and dropped two of three to lowly Miami this weekend to cap a 5-5 road trip.
"I'm pleased, but we're not satisfied," Hurdle said of his club's road trip. "We wanted more. We battled 10 games, every game, on this trip."
Heading to the hill for Hurdle's club on Monday will be Francisco Liriano, who was brilliant in beating the Washington Nationals on Wednesday. Liriano scattered two hits over 7 2/3 scoreless innings in that one to improve to 10-4, while lowering his ERA to 2.23.
"He's dotting up the fastball. He can throw the slider, the changeup off the same arm angle, same release spot for those variances of speed. He really controls bat speed well," Hurdle said. "He stays out of the middle of the plate."
Liriano beat the Cards the only other time he faced them.
St. Louis, meanwhile, will counter with righty Jake Westbrook, who is 7-4 with a 2.95 ERA. Westbrook won his second straight start on Wednesday against Philadelphia, as he allowed three runs and nine hits in seven innings.
"I felt like, even though they were hitting the ball hard, right at guys with some fly balls, I still felt like I was pitching a lot better than my last start," Westbrook said after his victory vs. Philadelphia. "That last inning, giving up a couple runs is something I need to do a better job of. There's going to be ballgames where we don't have nine runs to work with."
Westbrook tossed six scoreless innings in a no-decision versus the Pirates earlier in the year, but is just 1-7 lifetime against them with a 4.81 ERA in 14 games (10 starts).
Pittsburgh is 3-2 in five games against the Cardinals this season.