With things tighter than ever in the National League Central, this weekend's final series between the Pirates and Cardinals this season will have major implications on the postseason picture.
After a 12-8 loss to the Cardinals in Friday's series opener, the Pirates sit just a half-game ahead of them in the NL Central. Right behind them are the Reds, who are two games back.
Pittsburgh and St. Louis square off again on Saturday at Busch Stadium with first place on the line. Jeff Locke gets the call for the Bucs, and Adam Wainwright gets the nod for the Cards.
Locke (9-4, 3.22 ERA) will make his first start since Aug. 27 as the Pirates try and get their 82nd victory to secure a winning season after losing two straight games.
Returning from a brief stay in the Minors after posting a 7.02 ERA with a .373 opponents' average in his last seven starts, Locke is trying to put those numbers in the past.
"Gives you a bit of a blow," Locke said of his time in the Minors. "I continued all my normal work. But the time off the mound, lets you regroup a little bit. It's like hitting the reset button."
Manager Clint Hurdle feels that Locke can handle the pressure of the series after blanking the Cardinals in seven innings back on April 28.
"He feels good about getting the break -- hitting the pause button -- and getting after it again. He's looking forward to the challenge," Hurdle said. "He pitched a very good game earlier here, so he has game plan and history to pull from, on how to attack and have success."
Meanwhile, Wainwright (15-9, 3.14 ERA) will try to change his luck against the Bucs this season. In two starts -- both in the second half -- he's allowed seven runs on 13 hits in 14 total innings.
Yet, it's not just the Pirates. Wainwright's been roughed up in his last two starts against the Reds, surrendering 15 runs on 17 hits in just eight innings.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said he and Wainwright watched video of those starts to break things down. However, he said the team doesn't want to change much mechanically with it being so late in the season.
"It's part of the challenges in this game. You expect your ace, a guy who's been around the league a long time, to have everything already kind of figured out, but you're going to constantly have to adjust," Matheny said. "Some little habit might have jumped in or some minor mechanical flaw. For the most part, he made some minor tweaks, and I know he's ready to get back out there because he feels good and he wants to be the guy that leads us."
Pirates: Marte could pinch-run until fully healthy
As Starling Marte continues to work his way back into playing condition, Hurdle said Friday that he'd consider using Marte on the basepaths.
"We might get to the point of just activating him and just using him to run, once we're comfortable with that," said Hurdle.
Marte last played on Aug. 18, six days before he officially went on the disabled list with a right hand contusion. During an off-day workout on Thursday, he was able to grip a bat with both hands for the first time and take some swings off a tee.
"He's close with his throwing," Hurdle reported of the left fielder, "and he's ramped up all his running."
Cardinals: Westbrook activated from DL
Right-hander Jake Westbrook was activated from the 15-day disabled list Friday and is taking on a new role in the Cardinals' bullpen for the foreseeable future.
"[He will] give us another arm down there and hopefully get him some action," Matheny said. "But we told all our guys, you know, just stay ready in any capacity. You never know how you're going to be needed."
He worked in a relief role for the postseason in 2011, and tossed a scoreless inning in Game 6 of the World Series, earning the win on David Freese's walk-off homer.
Westbrook tossed 1 1/3 innings on Friday, allowing five runs (three earned) on three hits.
• Center fielder Andrew McCutchen is one home run shy of becoming the second Pirates player with three straight 20-20 (home runs - stolen bases) seasons. Barry Bonds (1990-92) was first.
• Cards left-hander Jaime Garcia is continuing to progress in his throwing program. He threw from 90 feet Friday and, after two days off, is scheduled to throw again Monday.
Quinn Roberts is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.