Bucs have Cardinals’ respect

Trevor Rosenthal is only 23 years old, and in just his first full season as the St. Louis Cardinals’ right-handed fireballing eighth-inning relief specialist.

But Rosenthal already has a take on his team’s developing rivalry with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Rosenthal noticed the electricity in the air two weeks ago in Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, when the Cardinals lost four of five games with the Pirates and the teams reversed spots at the top of the National League Central Division standings.

Round two between the two teams – a three-game series that begins tonight in St. Louis’ Busch Stadium – should prove to be quite entertaining.

“They’re scrappy, and they’re working together,” Rosenthal said of the first-place Pirates, who enter tonight’s series opener with a three-game lead over the second-place Redbirds in the NL Central. “It’s the same way with us. [The rest of the season] is going to be really fun for the fans to watch and see how it plays out.”

The heavy-hitting Cardinals (67-50) lead the National League in both runs scored (574) and team batting average (.274), while the pitching-rich Pirates (70-47) lead the league in team earned run average against (.314) and shutouts (14).

The Cardinals held a 1-game lead over the Pirates as recently as July 29, when they opened the five-game series in Pittsburgh. But after losing four games to the Pirates – including a 2-1, 6-0 doubleheader sweep – St. Louis dropped out of the top spot.

Both teams are coming into this series in a bit of a down mode. The Cardinals have lost 13 of their last 18 games, including five of seven on their current homestand.

After completing a 9-2 homestand, the Pirates were swept in a three-game weekend series in Colorado.

This series may be even more important for the Cardinals than it is for the Pirates. The teams also play each other six more times after this series – three in each ballpark, between Aug. 30 and Sept. 8 – but St. Louis can’t afford to fall too much further behind the Pirates.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny accordingly adjusted his pitching rotation for this three-game showdown, moving righthanded ace Adam Wainwright (13-7, 2.66 earned run average) into the starting role for tonight’s 8:15 p.m. series opener against Pirates’ righthander Charlie Morton (4-3, 3.88).

Wednesday’s 8:15 p.m. matchup features Cardinals’ righty Shelby Miller (11-7, 2.89) against Pirates’ left-hander Francisco Liriano (12-5, 2.83), while Thursday afternoon’s 1:45 p.m. series finale pits a pair of veteran right-handers – St. Louis’ Lance Lynn (13-6, 3.79) against the Pirates’ A.J. Burnett (5-8, 2.95).

“Any time you’re playing a division opponent, you’ve got to be very serious about it,” Cardinals infielder Daniel Descalso said. “We have a lot of games left with [the Pirates], but there are a lot of games left with other teams, too. A lot can happen between now and the end of September.”

The Cardinals – who are just 3-7 against the Pirates and 21-28 this season against teams with winning records – say they’re not looking too far ahead.

“We don’t do a lot of forecasting, and we don’t do a lot of predicting,” Matheny said. “We just worry about ourselves, and about how we play.”

Pittsburgh second baseman Neil Walker said that the Pirates are planning to do the same thing.

“Everybody knows their role, and everybody knows what they need to do to help this team win,” Walker said. “When you’re doing that on a nightly basis, those things can kind of steamroll in a good way.”

St. Louis has been playing without one of the league’s top hitters and catchers, Yadier Molina, who has been bothered by a right knee sprain. Molina went on the 15-day disabled list July 31, one day after aggravating the problem in the second game of the doubleheader in Pittsburgh. He is eligible to return to the lineup Wednesday.

The Cardinals have a potent offense with or without Molina. They avoided a five-game sweep in Pittsburgh by breaking out for a 13-0 win in the series finale on the strength of a 17-hit attack. Then they followed that up with 13 and 15-run games in two victories in Cincinnati.

“We’ve been really good at driving in runs with runners in scoring position, and keeping the line moving,” said Cardinals’ back-up first baseman and Philipsburg-Osceola High School graduate Matt Adams.

The Pirates have 28 come-from-behind victories this season, and catcher Russell Martin, a free-agent acquisition last winter from the New York Yankees, has been a big part of many of them. Martin has also managed the Pirates’ excellent pitching staff well, throwing out a league-leading 27 of the 62 baserunners who have tried to steal against him this year.

“Russell Martin has been calling great games back there, and it’s fun when you win,” said Liriano, another offseason free-agent pickup whose 12 wins leads the Bucs this season.

After 20 consecutive losing seasons, baseball is indeed a blast again for the Pirates and their fans.

“We’re just a bunch of kids playing ball and having fun out there,” first-baseman outfielder Garrett Jones said. “We just want to continue and finish it all the way to the end of this season.”