The Pirates are well aware of their second-half collapses the previous two seasons, and Wednesday could have had a lot to do with a third straight freefall. Instead, the Bucs spit out the bad taste of Tuesday's 14-inning loss to the Cardinals and snapped a four-game losing streak with a 5-1 triumph.
The win extended Pittsburgh's National League Central lead to three games over the Cardinals, and it thwarted St. Louis' attempt to tighten an already close division race.
In Thursday's series finale at Busch Stadium, the Pirates will send right-hander A.J. Burnett to the mound with a chance to return their division lead to four games -- where it was prior to their season-high-tying losing streak. The Cardinals will counter with righty Lance Lynn.
The Cardinals and Reds crept closer after errors cost the Pirates two games in three days. First, a Pedro Alvarez throwing error helped the Rockies to a 3-2 win and a series sweep on Sunday, and on Tuesday, it was Starling Marte's ninth-inning dropped fly ball that extended the game and led to St. Louis' series-opening win.
"The human element comes into play from time to time," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Physical errors -- that's all they are. Errors from lack of attention or focus ... now that's something else. [Recent defensive breakdowns] have complicated things for us. We've talked from the beginning about needing to play 27 outs and we haven't done that as well as we did earlier."
The Pirates committed another error in Wednesday's win, but they improved to 8-4 against the Cardinals this year. Including Thursday's finale, Pittsburgh faces St. Louis seven more times this season.
The Cardinals, who will likely get Yadier Molina back Thursday, entered the three-game series with four losses in their previous five games, but they felt Tuesday's unlikely win could help them get over the hump. A series win couldn't hurt, either.
"I think games like that definitely help you as a team that's working from behind," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "I think you need a couple of those wins where you fight back, see a lot of character, see a lot of heart. And typically, that translates into a heightened level of expectation that that can happen again."
Burnett takes a 5-8 record into Thursday despite a 2.95 ERA in 21 starts this season. The 15-year veteran dominated for the first 5 2/3 innings in his last start but could not record the final out of the sixth inning against the Rockies. He left having allowed six runs (five earned) on eight hits, while walking three and striking out eight.
Lynn's last start ended in similar fashion. The 26-year-old held the Cubs scoreless through the first six innings Friday but left with two outs in the seventh down 3-0. He finished with three hits against him, while walking a season-high-tying five and striking out five.
Lynn enters Thursday 13-6 with a 3.79 ERA.
Pirates: Alvarez flexes muscle with day-game power
Alvarez has boasted solid power numbers over his last two seasons with the Pirates, launching 30 homers in 2012 and 29 more through 110 games this year. But what may be most impressive are his power numbers in day games.
The 26-year-old third baseman, who hit a solo homer in the Pirates' win Wednesday, led the league with 18 daytime home runs last season, and he has added 11 more this year.
Cardinals: Molina, Robinson expected to return for finale
Molina and outfielder Shane Robinson are both expected to come off the disabled list for Thursday's series finale. Placing Molina back behind the plate is a huge boost for the Cardinals after he missed 14 games with a right knee sprain.
"Every time you're on the DL, it's no good," Molina said. "You don't have fun on the DL. I'm happy to be back tomorrow and start playing again."
Robinson also missed 14 games with a right shoulder sprain.
• Matt Holliday left Tuesday's game with a mild right ankle sprain but was in the lineup Wednesday and went 1-for-3, extending his hitting streak to 11 games.
• The Pirates are 31-19 against the NL Central, while the Cardinals are 27-20.
• Burnett is 7-5 with a 3.67 ERA in 14 career starts against the Cardinals. Lynn is 4-1 with a 3.86 ERA in seven starts and two relief appearances against the Pirates.
Kevin Massoth is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.