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Series Preview: Cardinals vs. Pirates

Despite their 5-1 recently-completed road trip, the Cardinals still aren't getting much respect at a national Level.

The latest edition of the Yahoo Sports power rankings slots the Cardinals as the 14th best team in baseball, right in the middle of the pack of mediocrity and immediately behind the 13th place Pirates.

Their records support the idea that the Bucs and the Birds are about the same quality of team. They're virtually tied in the standings, separated by a thousandth of a percentage point because Pittsburgh's played a couple less games. 

It's still too early in the season to worry too much about the standings. But it's never too soon for the Redbirds to send a message to the guys in yellow and black that St. Louis is the real contender by dominating the Pittsburghers in a series at Busch Stadium.

The Cardinals are starting to prove they're not the team that stumbled through May and June as one player after another settled in for a nice, long stint on the disabled list. Indeed, the return of top of the line-up spark plug Jon Jay and versatile run producer Matt Carpenter coincides exactly with the Redbirds' recent hot streak.

Meanwhile, Chris Carpenter went to Texas to get his shoulder looked at by a specialist who is an expert at taming nerve issues. Hopefully the Cardinals ace, who threw again earlier this week after a return of weakness in his shoulder caused him to shut down his rehab effort temporarily, will be back on track for a return around the time of the All-Star Break.

Even with Lance Berkman and Carpenter still on the disabled list, the Pirates can't compete with the Cardinals star power. They're an offense-starved team. So if the Birds pitchers can do an even mediocre job, the St. Louis offense ought to be able to score enough runs to win.

Andrew McCutchen is really the only threat in the Pittsburgh batting order with a .336 average and 14 homers. Pedro Alverez matches McCutchen's homer total. But he's a .225 hitter. Neil Walker is the only other Pirate hitting above .234 -- and he's sporting a modest .263 average. As a team, the Pirates hit .233 and have an on-base percentage of .289. Both totals rank 15th of 16 NL clubs.

Simply put, if you don't make mistakes and keep the Pirates off base, their two power hitters can't do much damage.

Meanwhile the Cardinals are anchored by Carlos Beltran's .312 batting average with 20 homers and 59 RBIs. The MVP candidate is surrounded with Matt Holliday's .300 average with 12 home runs and 47 batted in and David Freese's .285 average with 13 long balls and and 47 RBIs. The Cardinals have five starters who are hitting .295 or better and, when Allen Craig hits his next homer, the Birds will boast five players in double figures for homers. As a team St. Louis is leading the NL with a .276 batting average and a .341 on base percentage.

In the opener, the Cardinals throw Adam Wainwright (6-7, 4.32) against Kevin Corriea (3-6, 4.03.) Wainwright has finally hit his stride after struggling early as he returned from Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2011 season. In his last three starts, Wainwright has hurled 21 innings and allowed a total of five earned runs. In his career against the Pirates, Wainwright is 8-3 with a 4.79 ERA. Corriea is 2-3 against the Cardinals with a 3.86 ERA. He's won two of his last three after starting the season with three straight losses. On the road this season, Corriea is 2-4 with a 4.64 ERA.

Lance Lynn (10-3, 3.23) will start the second game of the series against Jeff Karstens (0-2, 6.35). Lynn has struggled his last two times out. So, hopefully, he can right the ship against the light-hitting Bucs. In his only previous start against Pittsburgh, Lynn three 6 1/3 innings and allowed two runs on three hits. He walked one and struck out six. Karstens is 1-2 against St. Louis in his career with a 4.13 ERA. Both of his losses have come on the road and he has been pounded to the tune of giving up 21 hits in 11 innings pitched with a 9.00 ERA.

St. Louis will send Jake Westbrook, (7-7, 3.77) to the bump in the finale against Erik Bedard (4-8, 4.27). Westbrook seemed ready for the scrap heap prior to his last three starts. But he's throwing strikes down in the zone again and it's paid off in the form of two victories (the Cardinals won all three games, but he only got credit for two) and an ERA that has shrunk by half a point. On the down side, Westbrook gave up nine hits in six innings in his most recent start against the Pirates and took the loss. In his career against Pittsburgh, Westbrook is a befuddling 0-5 with a 5.06 ERA. Bedard in his last three starts has lasted a total of 15 1/3 innings and has given up 12 runs on 20 hits while absorbing two losses. In his career against the Redbirds, he's 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA.