If the implications of a Pirates-St. Louis series in the midst of a pennant race aren't enough, consider the showdown between two legitimate contenders for the National League MVP: Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.
"It's the baddest dude in the league. That's the MVP," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
"So, should Molina get some votes? Yeah. Should our guy get some votes? Absolutely. Their club was a different team without Molina in the lineup. We'd be a different team without McCutchen."
McCutchen is hitting .372 with seven homers and 25 RBI since the All-Star break. Add his elite speed on the basepaths and his play in center, and his name crops up on every list of frontrunners.
Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV, Radio:
Root Sports, KDKA-FM (93.7).
- Probable starters:
RHP A.J. Burnett (6-9, 3.18 ERA) vs. RHP Lance Lynn (13-8, 4.02).
- Key Matchup:
Burnett vs. Matt Carpenter, who is 8 for 18 (.444) with a triple, double, an RBI and two walks in his career against Burnett.
- Hidden stat:
Lynn has a 4.17 career ERA against the Pirates, his highest against a National League Central Division team.
Molina is 17 for 47 (.362) in the past 11 games with seven doubles and two homers since returning from the disabled list.
He was injured mid-series in July while the Pirates were taking 4 of 5 from the Cardinals at PNC Park.
"He's had a terrific season. When you start looking at a value to a team, obviously the offensive numbers speak for themselves," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "He's having a great season. He's a clutch player.
"But what he does behind the plate, it's really hard for me to even explain the value he brings to our club. He's a force to be reckoned with all the time behind the plate and really developed into top-tier level hitter."
Asked what his criteria is, Matheny agreed with Hurdle's assessment and gave McCutchen his due.
"I don't have anything clever. I'd say that's a pretty good definition. I think it's the guy who brings the most value to their team, more than anything else," Matheny said.
"Maybe I'm saying that because I realize what [Molina] does for us.
"McCutchen is a phenomenal player in the outfield and does a lot of impressive things out there.
"It's the all-around game for me. I'd love to see the due credit given to a player who does what [Molina] does."
More on Rodriguez
The Pirates hope to get left-handed pitcher Wandy Rodriguez (left forearm tightness) started on a rehabilitation assignment late next week.
But, even if he is deemed healthy enough to rejoin the active roster, he would still face an uphill battle to rejoin their starting rotation.
"It's going to be hard to get him stretched out much more than three or four innings, 50 or 65 pitches maximum," Hurdle said.
Ideally, the Pirates would like their starting pitchers to be able to throw at least 100 pitches each outing.
Rodriguez played catch Thursday and is scheduled to throw 15 to 20 pitches off a slope Sunday.
The Pirates plan to have him throw a bullpen session Tuesday in Milwaukee before he starts his rehab assignment, possibly in a playoff game for Class AAA Indianapolis.
"Right now, we'll be very pleased if he can get up to three [innings] and 50 [pitches]," Hurdle said. "Then, we'll go from there."
Pirates closer Jason Grilli will start for Class AA Altoona tonight in a rehab outing, throwing one inning or a maximum of 20 pitches. But Grilli will make at least two more such appearances -- Monday in Altoona and possibly Wednesday in Indianapolis -- before the Pirates will consider activating him.
Johnson to start Sunday
Minor league left-hander Kris Johnson will be the starting pitcher Sunday, filling a spot left vacant when the Pirates optioned Jeff Locke to Altoona. Johnson was scheduled to pitch Friday for Indianapolis, but he was scratched in favor of the recently promoted Casey Sadler.
Johnson, 28, made his major league debut earlier this month in a relief appearance for the Pirates, allowing two runs on five hits in six innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He is 10-4 with a 2.39 ERA in 26 outings (21 starts) for Indianapolis.
The Pirates are skipping Locke's start to give the struggling left-hander a mental and physical break. The Pirates plan to recall Locke Tuesday and anticipate inserting him back in the rotation.
First-round picks promoted
The Pirates promoted their two first-round draft picks this year, Austin Meadows, the ninth pick, and Reese McGuire, the 14th, to short-season Class A Jamestown. Meadows, an outfielder, his .294 with 5 homers, 5 triples, 11 doubles and 20 RBIs in 43 games for the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Pirates. McGuire, a catcher, hit .330 with 11 doubles and 21 RBIs in 46 games for the GCL Pirates.