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Don’t underestimate the gravity of the Cardinals series against the Pirates

It’s too early to say that the St. Louis Cardinals “must win” their three-game set starting tonight at Busch Stadium against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But this series could definitely set the tone for the final 50 or so games of the year.

In short, if the Redbirds are able to push around the Pirates on their home field, it could expose the Bucos as pretenders to the National League Central throne.

Winning two out of three would put St. Louis ahead of Pittsburgh by six games with 48 to play. A sweep would put them ahead by eight. Either way, it would take much of the starch out of the Pirates’ recent hot streak and put Burghers in a position where they’d almost have to win the Cardinals trip to their ballpark later this month to even stay relevant.

On the other hand, if Pittsburgh wins the series in St. Louis, it would send a message that they’re in the race for real. And there is little doubt the injury-riddled Cardinals would start to feel the pressure as the Bucs filled up their rear view mirror.

This is Pittsburgh’s chance to turn the Cardinals’ stellar start to the season into a memory and make the NL Central derby a drag race to the finish. It’s St. Louis’ chance to deal the Pirates a staggering blow.

St. Louis must capitalize on its opportunity to add some distance at home. The Birds are 40-16 at Busch Stadium. So failing to win the home series against the Pirates would definitely be squandering an advantage. The Pirates are only an average team of 26-26 away from PNC Park.

But if the Cardinals blow their chance at Busch, the odds - and the tone of the divison race - will swing dramatically.

The Pirates are a much more impressive 39-18 at home while St. Louis is seven games over .500 at 31-24.

St. Louis needs to put the Pirates in a position where Pittsburgh has to try to get even in PNC Park.

Let’s not forget the importance of the division crown. It’s the difference between heading into the playoffs with home field advantage through National League play in their back pocket and being forced to play a coin flip wildcard game.

The bad news is that the Pirates will start the series with Jeff Locke on the mound. He’s got mediocre numbers with a 6-6 record and a 4.31 ERA. Unfortunately, he’s left-handed and mediocre lefties are poison to the offensively-starved Redbirds.

Locke held St. Louis batsmen to one run in his last start. But the Cardinals were able to knock him out of the game by the fifth inning.

Jhonny Peralta has never collected a hit off Locke while Mark Reynolds is an .083 hitter against him and Matt Carpenter has a .182 lifetime batting average. But Peter Bourjos is a .429 hitter against Locke, Randal Grichuk bats .375 agsinst him and Jason Heyward hits .313.

The Cardinals counter with Carlos Martinez, 11-4 with a 2.57 ERA.

Andrew McCutchen is a .250 hitter against Martinez with one homer in his 12 at bats. Neil Walker bats .308 against Martinez and Gregory Polanco has a .714 mark - albeit in seven at bats. Pedro Alvarez is an .091 average and Starling Marte is hitless against the young St. Louis righty.

Gerrit cole (14-5, 2.39) will face Michael Wacha (13-4, 2.92) in game two, a battle of aces at least with Adam Wainwright on the Disabled list.

Game three will feature another lefty, Francisco Liriano (7-6, 3.13) against Lance Lynn (9-6, 2.76. Liriano has given the Birds fits in the past. Meanwhile, Lynn has had a lot of trouble locating his fastball recently.