Originally posted on Fox Sports Midwest  |  By STAN McNEAL  |  Last updated 7/29/13
Come on, admit it. The Cardinals get swept in Atlanta and you're already starting to doubt. Maybe Carlos Beltran is heading for another second-half slowdown after going 4 for 26 since the break and without a homer all month. Maybe all the games are catching up to Yadier Molina as he has fallen out of the lead in the NL batting race. Maybe Pete Kozma isn't the defensive whiz that Mike Matheny keeps saying he is after making errors in consecutive games. Maybe their offense isn't so dangerous after scoring three runs and collecting 14 hits all weekend. And, egads, maybe the Cardinals' major league-best record is an illusion and they aren't as good as you think. Well, relax. A little bit. You know making assumptions based on small sample sizes is not advisable. Leave it at this: The Braves' pitching was fabulous and the Cardinals' offense was flat. Now, move on. Because it doesn't get any easier for the Cardinals this week. Up next is their biggest -- and longest -- series so far this season with five games in the next four days at second-place Pittsburgh, which will be followed by a weekend series at Cincinnati. PNC Park is expected to be packed for the Pirates' first home series since the All-Star break. If you thought the Braves had dominant pitching, the Pirates are even better based on the numbers. Pittsburgh leads the majors in ERA, with the Braves second. Pirates rookie Gerrit Cole pitched Sunday and Wandy Rodriguez is on the disabled list, but the Cardinals still will see plenty of strong arms in the series. The Pirates will send out their hottest starter, Francisco Liriano, in Monday's opener. A power lefty with a nasty slider and little history against the Cardinals, Liriano is the type of starter who gives St. Louis a hard time. (The Cardinals are hitting .284 against right-handers, .245 against lefties.) Matt Holliday, who is 1 for 2, is the only Cardinals regular who has faced Liriano, 10-4 with a 2.23 ERA this season. Liriano was roughed up by the Reds two starts ago, but that was the only outing since June 12 in which he allowed more than two runs. Right-hander A.J. Burnett will start the second game of Tuesday's double-header (the Pirates haven't announced a Game 1 starter). The Cardinals pummeled him for 12 runs in 2 23 innings last May 2, but Burnett has shut them down twice this season, allowing two runs in 13 innings. Another lefty, All-Star Jeff Locke, starts Wednesday and he also has handled the Cardinals. In the only start in his young career against St. Louis, he pitched seven shutout innings in a 9-0 victory at Busch Stadium April 28. Right-hander Charlie Morton represents something of a break in Thursday's finale. The Cardinals have beaten Morton seven times in 11 starts, including twice early last season. Morton, however, has pitched well since returning in June from Tommy John surgery. In eight starts, he has allowed as many as four runs only once. Pittsburgh's bats haven't fared much better than the Cardinals' since the break. In their 5-5 trip to Cincinnati, Washington and Miami, the Pirates hit 11 homers (the Cardinals have one since the break) but averaged only 4.1 runs while striking out an average of 11 times a game. After their shutdown in Atlanta, the Cardinals are averaging 4 runs since the break. You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.
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