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Homestretch schedule favors Cardinals

REUTERS - St. Louis Cardinals Carlos Beltran is congratulated after scoring on David Freese's RBI single during the fifth inning of their National League MLB baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in St. Louis, Missouri, September 8, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>REUTERS</em></div>St. Louis Cardinals Carlos Beltran is congratulated after scoring on David Freese's RBI single during the fifth inning of their National League MLB baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in St. Louis, Missouri, September 8, 2013.
AP - The Cardinals' Matt Carpenter is congratulated by teammates after scoring on a sacrifice fly by Carlos Beltran against the Pirates on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, in St. Louis. The Cardinals swept the Pirates over the weekend to reclaim the National League Central lead.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>AP</em></div>The Cardinals' Matt Carpenter is congratulated by teammates after scoring on a sacrifice fly by Carlos Beltran against the Pirates on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, in St. Louis. The Cardinals swept the Pirates over the weekend to reclaim the National League Central lead.

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Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, 6:48 p.m.
 

ARLINGTON, Texas — After losing their grip on the NL Central lead over the weekend, the Pirates face a tough battle to get it back.

Of the top three teams in the division, the Pirates have the most difficult schedule over the final three weeks of the season.

“Of course, we want to stay focused and take care of our own business,” Pirates outfielder Garrett Jones said. “But we'll peek at what the other guys are doing. It doesn't change the way you play or anything, but you're interested in what those teams are doing.”

Sunday, the Cardinals completed a three-game sweep against the Pirates and moved atop the NL Central. The Reds swept the Dodgers and moved into a second-place tie with the Pirates.

The Cards were idle Monday, but the Pirates beat the Rangers to pull a game ahead of the Reds, who lost to the Cubs.

“This is one of the closest races I've ever been involved in,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Monday. “It's why you play the game.”

The losses to the Cardinals gave the Pirates a season-worst four-game losing streak. But even after losing five of their first eight games this month, the Pirates remain in great position to at least claim the second National League wild-card berth.

The Nationals could still claim that final playoff spot. But it would require an unlikely combination of events, such as the Nats going 15-4 and the Pirates going 6-13 to close out the season.

So, the top three teams in the NL Central are practically locks to make the postseason. All that remains is seeding — who wins the division, who gets home field for the wild-card game.

“The division is priority one,” Hurdle said. “I'm not going to take my eyes off it.”

The Pirates' final stretch of 20 games started with a win Monday at the Rangers. After this series, the Pirates will return to PNC Park for an 11-game home stand against the Cubs, Padres and Reds.

The Cubs have not given the Pirates too much trouble, winning only five of 12 games so far. The Pirates took two out of three games last month at San Diego.

The Pirates will end the season with six road games, three at the Cubs and three at the Reds.

The Pirates are 7-6 against the Reds this year. If the Cardinals hang on to win the division, the final set between the Pirates and Reds could decide which team gets to host the wild-card playoff game.

“We'll be watching (the scoreboard), but it could be something that hurts us more than helps us,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny told MLB.com. “Ideally, you just watch the (other) two teams beat each other up. But you never know how it's going to play out.”

Sixteen of the Cardinals' remaining 19 games are against teams with losing records, including the Brewers, Rockies, Mariners and Cubs. Twelve of the Cards' final 19 games will be played at Busch Stadium.

The Cardinals are 10-3 against the Brewers and 9-7 against the Cubs. Earlier this season, St. Louis won two of three in Colorado and pulled off a sweep in Washington.

The Reds will play eight of their final 17 games at Great American Ball Park. They will finish the regular season at home with back-to-back series against the Mets and Pirates.

On the road, the Reds will take on the Cubs, Brewers and last-place Astros.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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