Once again, there is a tie atop the National League Central.
The Pirates claimed the series opener against the Cardinals at PNC Park on Friday night to pull even with their division foe. For St. Louis, it marks the second straight dubious start to a critical series in the Steel City.
In late July, the Cardinals dropped the first four tilts of a five-game, four-day battle in Pittsburgh. That stretch vaulted the Pirates to the top of the Central. The Cards had recaptured the lead, but Friday's result evened the teams' records as they enter the final day of August.
"Last time we were here, we were in a rough spot," said St. Louis manager Mike Matheny. "That was, by far, our toughest stretch for the season. We saw that when we looked at the schedule last year, we knew it was going to be a challenge with no off-days, facing one tough team after another, and we fell into injuries. There were just a lot of things going the wrong direction that seemed to snowball.
"What we're seeing now, to me, is the team that we've seen for the bulk of the season, which is really how I think you need to evaluate a club. You don't need to take small samples and make a decision whether it's positively or negatively. For the long haul, we've been a pretty consistent team and have done a lot of the things that we're doing right now."
The city of Pittsburgh seems to have embraced their first-place club. The Pirates expect PNC Park to be packed for the series against the Cardinals, giving the games a playoff-type feel.
"We've always given this team a lot of respect, even in years when somebody else didn't," Matheny said. "They've always played well against us. The last two years, it's been no secret: this is a legitimate team.
"The last time we were in here, it was actually fun to see the fans acknowledge what these guys have done. It's a beautiful park. It's one of my favorite parks in all of baseball. It's nice to see it full with a lot of energy. It's a lot of negative stuff towards us, but that's OK. It's still a great atmosphere and makes for a great series."
Francisco Liriano pitched the Pirates to Friday's win, as he allowed only two hits over eight scoreless frames. Pittsburgh skipper Clint Hurdle will turn to the other half of his dynamic duo, A.J. Burnett, on Saturday.
"There are certain times you can adjust some things, with off-days," Hurdle said. "A couple weeks ago, we lined them up the way it would be the most competitive for us in these games."
Lance Lynn, winless in his last four starts, will toe the rubber for St. Louis.
Cardinals: Club acquires Axford
• St. Louis traded for Brewers reliever John Axford on Friday. In exchange, the Cardinals will send a player to be named to Milwaukee. Axford tallied 106 saves over parts of five seasons with the Brewers.
"I'm excited to start something new in my career," Axford said. "Baseball is all about change, and I'm really looking forward to this change."
• Joe Kelly will start for St. Louis on regular rest Sunday. Adam Wainwright will start Monday's series opener against the Reds.
Pirates: Hurlers on the mend
• Closer Jason Grilli and starter Wandy Rodriguez, both out with forearm injuries, are progressing as they inch closer to a return. Grilli will pitch an inning for Double-A Altoona on Saturday and again Monday. Rodriguez will throw fastballs off a slope Sunday and a bullpen session Tuesday.
"Depending on how he feels," Hurdle said of Rodriguez, "we may be able to send him out on rehab."
• The Cardinals have won five consecutive series.
• Burnett is 2-0 with a 2.96 ERA in four starts against St. Louis this season.