Pittsburgh, Cincinnati on deck for first-place Cardinals

News-DemocratApril 26, 2013 

National League Central rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are next up for the St. Louis Cardinals as they return to Busch Stadium following a 6-3 road trip that was filled with promise and occasional frustration.

In a rematch of the teams' compelling division series last season, the Cardinals closed the trip with a three-game sweep of Washington, climbing to a season-high five games over .500 at 13-8 and taking over first place.

St. Louis averaged just 3.6 runs per game in the three-city tour that included stops in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. But its starting pitching was up to the task with a 3.13 ERA.

The team also overcame more trouble with its bullpen. Mitchell Boggs continued to struggle, allowing four eighth-inning runs in the Cardinals' 7-3 loss to Philadelphia on Sunday.

But Edward Mujica assumed the role of closer by recording saves in all three victories against the Nationals. Mujica has four saves this season --half of his career total.

Whether Mujica is the ninth-inning answer remains to be seen. The Cardinals are expected to make an announcement about Jason Motte's immediate future by late next week, but it's hard to envision him being a part of the bullpen any time soon.

Instead, Motte could be headed for season-ending Tommy John surgery to repair the torn ligament in his elbow.

If Mujica tails off, the Cardinals' internal options at closer appear to be limited. Boggs (12.46 ERA) has been extremely ineffective, and hard-throwing rookie Trevor Rosenthal hasn't posted a clean inning since April 12.

Fernando Salas remains an option, but he hasn't had a save since 2011 when he stepped in for Ryan Franklin and finished with 24.

Victor Marte has four saves at Class AAA Memphis. But Marte, 32, is viewed only as a setup man at the big-league level and was inconsistent with the Cardinals last season (3-2, 4.91 ERA).

So the job belongs to Mujica for now, and manager Mike Matheny will ride the hot hand as long as possible and hope the Cardinals' starters are able to continue working deep into games.

Lance Lynn (3-0, 3.68 ERA) will get the start in the opener of a three-game series against Pittsburgh at 7:15 p.m. today. Lynn blanked the Phillies on one hit in seven innings Saturday to win his third consecutive start.

Jonathan Sanchez will oppose Lynn. The much-traveled left-hander has been battered this season, going 0-2 with an 11.12 ERA. He has allowed 27 baserunners in 11 1/3 innings.

The other pitching pairings for the Pirates series are: Jake Westbrook (1-1, 1.25 ERA) vs. A.J. Burnett (1-2, 2.79 ERA), 3:15 p.m. Saturday; and Shelby Miller (3-1, 2.16 ERA) vs. Jeff Locke (2-1, 3.74 ERA), 1:15 p.m. Sunday.

Pittsburgh was 16 games over .500 last Aug. 6 before going 17-37 in its final 54 games to finish 79-83. The Pirates have endured 20 consecutive losing seasons.

But the Pirates, who won three out of four from Philadelphia this week, are 13-9 so far in 2013. They began Thursday tied with the Cardinals in staff ERA at 3.18 and leading the NL with 24 double plays.

Cincinnati (13-9) closes the Cardinals' homestand Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday by making its second visit to Busch Stadium this season.

St. Louis took two of three against the Reds in its first home series of the season. After losing 13-4 in the home opener, the Cardinals outscored Cincinnati 15-1 in the final two games.

Contact reporter David Wilhelm at dwilhelm@bnd.com or 239-2665.

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