As the calendar flips from July to August, playoff talk and pennant conversations inevitably start heating up, if they hadn't already.
On Monday, the Cardinals and Pirates will put that talk on the line and begin a four-day, five-game series at PNC Park, with Jake Westbrook taking the mound for St. Louis and Francisco Liriano for Pittsburgh.
The clubs will play a doubleheader Tuesday because of an April 16 rainout. St. Louis, prior to its Sunday night game against Atlanta, held a two-game lead over Pittsburgh in the National League Central. Monday marks the first of 14 more games these two teams have against each other this year. Eight of those will be in Pittsburgh.
For the Cardinals, who are coming off getting swept in Atlanta, this crucial series against Pittsburgh is only one in a string of them on a tough road trip. They head to Cincinnati after Thursday's finale with the Pirates.
"This road trip, you're going up against very good big league ballplayers and very good big league teams," third baseman David Freese said. "It's a good test for us. Going into the last two months, obviously it's going to go down to the wire."
Added outfielder Carlos Beltran: "There's no doubt that it's a tough road trip, but we're confident in the team that we have. We're going to lose some games here or there, but we're not panicking. We want to go through this."
Meanwhile, Liriano is coming off one of his strongest outings of the season, although he's had a handful of good ones.
He tossed 7 2/3 shutout innings, allowing just two hits and three walks with eight strikeouts against the Nationals. The lefty carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning. He's 10-4 with a 2.23 ERA and 3.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio on the year.
"He's dotting up the fastball. He can throw the slider, the changeup off the same arm angle, same release spot for those variances of speed. He really controls bat speed well," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He stays out of the middle of the plate."
Westbrook has made four straight quality starts, going seven innings in three of them. He's 3-1 in his last four, and he allowed nine hits and three runs over seven in his last outing, a 11-3 win over the Phillies.
"I felt like, even though they were hitting the ball hard, right at guys with some fly balls, I still felt like I was pitching a lot better than my last start," Westbrook said after his victory vs. Philadelphia. "That last inning, giving up a couple runs is something I need to do a better job of. There's going to be ballgames where we don't have nine runs to work with."
Cardinals: Holliday goes 1-for-4 in return
Outfielder Matt Holliday returned to the Cardinals' lineup Saturday and went 1-for-4 with a double. On Sunday, he went 0-for-2 with a walk and a strikeout.
Holliday spent about two weeks on the disabled list with a strained right hamstring. The Cardinals sent first baseman/outfielder Brock Peterson to Triple-A Memphis in a corresponding move.
Pirates: Snider to DL, Sanchez recalled
The Pirates placed Travis Snider on the disabled list with discomfort in his left big toe and recalled catcher Tony Sanchez.
Sanchez was in Miami on Sunday on the taxi squad in case catcher Michael McKenry, who tweaked his left knee sliding into second base on Saturday, couldn't go. Russell Martin started behind the plate Sunday after he tweaked his knee Friday night and took Saturday off.
Snider has a .219/.287/.322 slash line with three homers and 23 RBIs in 95 games this season. He has one hit in his last 14 at-bats. Sanchez, the club's first-round Draft pick in 2009, went 2-for-8 with a run and a double in two games with the Bucs in June, his first Major League action.
Hurdle said earlier this month that Sanchez still had to improve defensively to see consistent time with the Pirates, but the club will play eight games in the next seven days, so the extra catching depth may be needed, especially if McKenry isn't 100 percent. The Bucs started a stretch of 18 games in 17 days on July 19.
• Tuesday starter Tyler Lyons, who will be called up for the doubleheader, is scheduled to join the team at PNC Park on Monday.
• Cardinals first baseman Allen Craig has a .360 batting average (27-for-75) in the month of July and is batting .611 (11-for-18) with runners in scoring position this month.
• Michael McKenry and Russell Martin have been the only two catchers the Pirates have used this year and are one of just three backstops (also Rod Barajas) the team has used since the beginning of last year. The only other team in the Majors to use three different catchers since the beginning of last year is Houston.
Steven Petrella is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.