The surging St. Louis Cardinals are eyeing first place in the NL Central, and they'll have a chance to at least get a share of it heading into the All-Star break.
They will have to do it without Yadier Molina.With their All-Star catcher's sidelined for at least two months, the Cardinals attempt to complete a four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday night.St. Louis (50-42), which won the Central last year, is two games behind first-place Milwaukee in the division chase. The Cardinals visit Milwaukee for a three-game set this weekend, and that could mean overtaking the Brewers -- who host Philadelphia on Thursday -- atop the Central ahead of the break."I would say September is when you really start paying attention to what's going on," starter Lance Lynn said. "But it's always good to be right there, no matter what time it is."St. Louis was five games behind Milwaukee before winning the first three games of this series with Pittsburgh (47-44), including a 5-2 victory Wednesday. Molina left the game in the third inning with what was thought to be a sprained right thumb suffered while sliding into third base.Molina, however, tore ligaments in the thumb and will miss eight to 12 weeks. Voted to his sixth All-Star appearance Tuesday, Molina will undergo surgery Friday.Matt Adams and Kolten Wong are coming through offensively.Adams is hitting .397 with 13 RBIs in his last 16 games, including 10 for 17 in the past four with three doubles, one homer and five RBIs.Wong is 5 for 12 over that same stretch, connecting for three homers with five RBIs. The rookie second baseman has gone deep in each of the last two games, including a walkoff homer in Tuesday's 5-4 win over the Pirates.Shelby Miller (7-7, 4.15 ERA) surely wouldn't mind seeing that production continue, as he's 0-2 with a 7.32 ERA over his last four starts.The right-hander seemed headed for a victory Saturday, allowing three runs in 5 1/3 innings while being backed by five, but closer Trevor Rosenthal blew the save in a 6-5 loss to Miami.Miller has won his last two starts against Pittsburgh, allowing two runs in 11 innings despite eight walks. He earned the win in a 1-0 home victory over the Pirates on April 25, yielding three hits in 5 2/3 innings.Pittsburgh had won 12 of 15 before getting held to six runs in this series while going 2 for 25 with runners in scoring position.The Pirates, though, are within 4 1/2 games of the Central lead."We know we're going to contend all the way through and we're going to fight all the way through. None of that's going to change," catcher Russell Martin said. "It's always nice to rattle off some wins before the All-Star break, but if it doesn't happen, it doesn't matter."Edinson Volquez (7-6, 3.88) is trying to win a fourth straight start for the first time in his 10-year career. The right-hander has won his last three in impressive fashion, allowing two runs and only three extra-base hits in 21 innings.He's rarely performed so well against the Cardinals, going 2-6 with a 6.19 ERA in his last 12 starts against them. Volquez is 1-4 with a 6.91 ERA in six visits to St. Louis, getting tagged for six runs and two homers by Jhonny Peralta in 5 2/3 innings of a 7-0 loss there April 27.
Yadier Molina has been the most valuable catcher in baseball by WAR over the last four seasons. Over that span (since 2011), the Cardinals are 275-203 (.575) when Molina starts and 50-50 (.500) when he doesn't start.
Shelby Miller has thrown 34.7 percent of his pitches this season in the upper third of the zone or above, the ninth-highest rate in MLB. Pirates hitters have compiled a .203 average in at-bats to end in a pitch in that zone, seventh worst in baseball.