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Cardinals-Pirates series a crucial one, but it's still only July

| Monday, July 29, 2013, 10:48 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny watches the Pirates score four runs during the first inning Monday, July 29, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny walks from the field after arguing call against the Pirates on Monday, July 29, 2013, at PNC Park.

Pittsburgh hasn't experienced much meaningful baseball during the past 20 years, so it's understandable why this week's series against the St. Louis Cardinals has generated so much excitement.

The Cardinals lead the NL Central. The Pirates entered Monday's game just 1 12 games behind.

But for the Cardinals, who have made 10 postseason appearances and won two World Series since 1992, meaningful baseball is the standard. No strangers to pressure down the stretch, many Cardinals players downplayed the importance of the series that opened at PNC Park on Monday.

“It's still just July,” infielder Daniel Descalso said. “They are right behind us, but there's still a lot of baseball left to be played. I don't think we're putting any extra emphasis on this series over any other series we've had this year. There's still a lot of baseball left.”

The Pirates have suffered late-season collapses the past two years, while the Cardinals have flourished. They won the second wild-card spot and advanced to the NLCS in 2012. In 2011, they went 23-9 in their past 32 games to come back from a 10 12-game deficit and clinch the wild card on the final day of the regular season. They went on to win the World Series.

Monday opened a stretch for the Cardinals in which they'll play 23 of their next 41 games against the Pirates and the third-place Cincinnati Reds. The Pirates travel to St. Louis on Aug. 13 and will face the Cardinals nine times in 25 games before closing the season with six of nine games against the Reds, who went 50-27 in the second half of 2012 and became the first team in the majors to clinch a playoff spot Sept. 20.

Matt Carpenter believes the Cardinals can have an advantage down the stretch as the games grow more important, having been in similar situations.

“But at the same time you still have to come out and play, and that's what we're going to do,” the Cardinals' second baseman said.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has preached a one-game-at-a-time mentality all season. He knows it isn't the most exciting mantra in the world, but he's sticking to it.

Even thinking about an entire series is a little too much for Matheny's liking, and overemphasizing one series over another is a danger he wants his players to avoid.

“I think it puts less emphasis on another one that could end up killing you,” he said. “And once again, I don't even put emphasis on a series, I put emphasis on a game. Today is our emphasis. I want these guys training their minds to prepare for one game and an opportunity to go out and compete and not get distracted. This game's about eliminating distractions, in my mind. I think that's a huge part of the success a team can have is how many distractions can you put aside and get down to what we can control.”

Like Matheny, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle prefers his players not worry about anything beyond the game they'll play next.

“We're going to maintain the mindset we've had from the beginning of the season,” Hurdle said. “We understand we're playing a team that's on top of us; it's a first-place team. There's a lot of reasons to have some excitement in the air, but we're best served with that one-game-at-a-time mentality.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at kprice@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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