But with both National League Central rivals right in the thick of the postseason race, this three-game set in Pittsburgh is a golden opportunity to get the upper hand heading into September.
"Every game is important for us," Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday said. "We're trying to win. We're trying to make the playoffs. Every game is equally important. We're pushing hard, and it's almost September."
A.J. Burnett will take the mound for the Pirates looking to bounce back from a 6 1/3-inning start in which he put 17 runners on base but yielded only four runs for a no-decision. He'll also be facing St. Louis for the first time since enduring the worst start of his career on May 2, when he allowed 12 earned runs in 2 2/3 innings.
The Cardinals will counter with Kyle Lohse, who hopes to put the finishing touches on a dominant month. The right-hander has allowed three earned runs in 26 2/3 innings in August, pitched at least six innings in all four of his starts and scattered no more than four hits in any of them.
St. Louis has been through this before, rallying from 9 1/2 games back last year en route to the World Series. The Cardinals would make the playoffs as one of the two Wild Card clubs if the postseason began today, but they and the Pirates trail the Reds in the NL Central.
"Obviously, this year is different because of the second Wild Card," Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina said. "Last year is last year. You know it's going to be tough to win 162, but at the same time, you need to know that you have to win the most games you can, and this is no different. ... For me, it's just another game. You try to win it."
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is still gunning for the Wild Card spot currently held by St. Louis. The Pirates have struggled lately, dropping five of their last six, but manager Clint Hurdle has found reason for optimism amid the losing skid.
"Our games haven't been complete for a while now. It's been hard, but we know what we need to do: play better," he said. "One thing I continue to see from this team -- they're fighting back."
Cardinals: Freese, Molina good to go
Molina was back in the starting lineup Sunday after sitting out Saturday with a swollen ankle and went 0-for-5 in the Cardinals' 8-2 win over the Reds. The catcher said he simply taped his ankle and felt ready to play Saturday if necessary, although manager Mike Matheny said it was "a good day for him to take off and hopefully get ahead of it."
David Freese didn't play Sunday but didn't suffer a serious injury when he took a grounder off his left wrist and exited Friday's game early. Matheny said the injury was preventing him from "letting it go," but all the tests came back negative.
Lance Berkman went 1-for-3 with a strikeout and played seven innings at first base in his second rehab start with Triple-A Memphis on Saturday.
Pirates: Takahashi activated as Qualls sent to DL
The Pirates activated left-hander Hisanori Takahashi on Sunday, putting him in the bullpen for their series finale against the Brewers. To make room for Takahashi, Pittsburgh placed right-hander Chad Qualls on the 15-day disabled list with irritation in his left big toe.
Joel Hanrahan leads the NL with 34 saves, but he has had only one save opportunity since Aug. 8.
The Pirates haven't won a season series over the Cardinals since 2008 (10-7). The clubs are knotted at 6-6 heading into this week's set.
Allen Craig has recorded eight multi-hit games in his last 14 contests after going 3-for-5 on Sunday. He is batting .431 (25-for-58) over that stretch.
The Pirates have let their opponents score first in 22 of their last 27 games.