Baseball lends itself well to arguments concerning sample size. How many plate appearances are enough to consider a hot streak legitimate? What volume of innings provides an accurate depiction of a player's defensive skill?
Three games out of 162 represents 1.8 percent of the season, not a large enough sample from which to draw conclusions. The Pirates still have a 70-47 record entering their three-game series with the St. Louis Cardinals, which begins tonight at Busch Stadium. They lead the Cardinals by three games in the National League Central Division.
But, in their most recent three games, the Pirates were swept by the Colorado Rockies. They scored a combined seven runs at Coors Field against starters Jorge De La Rosa, Juan Nicasio and Chad Bettis. The Rockies torched Francisco Liriano, who has pitched his way into staff-ace status.
"You got to prove yourself every day," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Forty-eight hours after a 9-2 homestand, we've got challenges. We do. They're real."
Hurdle and the Pirates will face the best the Cardinals have to offer: Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn.
"We know we can play with them," Hurdle said. "And, actually, we know we can beat them. They know they can beat us."
Jeff Locke took it one step further.
"You just hope that we can put our best foot forward and compete with those guys because we know we feel like we're a better team than they are," Locke said. "To take four out of five from a team like that last time is pretty impressive."
Those four wins against St. Louis coincided with the Cardinals' recent skid. They salvaged a win Sunday to end a four-game losing streak, but have lost 13 of their past 18 games. They lost three out of four to the piping-hot Los Angeles Dodgers last week, but also lost two of three to the Chicago Cubs over the weekend.
"Of course, there's a lot of anticipation coming into the Cardinals series," Locke said. "Everybody's excited for it, everybody's ready to go. I'm assuming it's going to go the same way it went last time when they came to our place."
For that to happen, the Pirates could use their leadoff man. Starling Marte did not start Sunday after taking a pitch off his left hand Saturday night, but pinch-ran in the ninth. His playing status is considered day-to-day at this point.
They also could use some offense, and some have found Busch Stadium a friendly environment in that department. Pedro Alvarez has hit .340 there with four home runs and two doubles since the start of 2012. Jose Tabata has a hit in 21 out of his 23 career games at Busch Stadium while batting .305.
"We've actually shown up and held our own at their park as well," Hurdle said. "Winning four out of five doesn't mean anything the first pitch when we get there."
Alvarez homered Sunday in a loss at Colorado. He said as well as the homestand went, he and his teammates have moved on.
"Honestly, we're not thinking about that," Alvarez said. "We're taking it day by day. Tuesday's ahead of us, and we'll worry about Tuesday when Tuesday comes."
Nine games remain between the Pirates and the Cardinals this season, and they are crucial. The Pirates hope to hold off the Cardinals and win the division title, thereby avoiding a one-game wild-card playoff, the ultimate exercise in drawing conclusions from a small sample size.
If the Pirates don't win the division, but have one of the two best records in the NL after the division winners, they play a winner-take-all playoff game that sends the winner to the division series and the loser home.
"We've played some good baseball, but not the kind of baseball we're accustomed to playing right now," Locke said. "Every team goes through little things like this.
"If it was seven, eight games and not three, it'd be a lot different story."
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published August 13, 2013 4:00 AM