Pirates notebook: Cardinals visit again with plenty at stake

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Get ready for the biggest series in PNC Park history, Part 2.

OK, so this three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals isn't quite as awe-inspiring as the five-game series the two teams played a month ago at PNC Park. But it's every bit as meaningful, as the series winner will own at least a share of first place in the National League Central Division.

The Cardinals and Pirates have played eight games in the past month, and the Pirates are 5-3 in that span. Neither team has been able to gain much separation from the other in this division race, while the Cincinnati Reds aren't far behind.

But the Pirates are approaching this upcoming series -- their last at home against the Cardinals this season -- with a low-key attitude.

"To see how much emphasis is being put on a day-to-day basis and a series-to-series basis, it's partially humorous to us," second baseman Neil Walker said. "The days aren't different for us. It's a different pitcher on the mound, it's maybe a [different] lineup for us. But we're just going out there trying to compete and win."

The Pirates have learned in the past month that they don't shrink in a marquee series, which wasn't the case the past two seasons. An August series against the Reds last year was the start of a second-half collapse. In 2011, it was back-to-back series against the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies -- two of the top teams in the NL East -- that did in the Pirates.

"There are a lot of guys here with experience that have been to the postseason, deep in the postseason and have been in pennant races," reliever Tony Watson said. "We can lean on those guys."

Walker stressed that the way the Pirates follow this head-to-head series could be just as important as the way they handle the Cardinals the next three days.

In this case, that's especially true; the Pirates and Cardinals meet again next week in St. Louis.

Roster maneuvering

The Pirates will approach September roster expansions a little differently, manager Clint Hurdle said, to help the team prepare for a playoff run.

The front office had an exercise in playoff roster management last season, when the Pirates climbed 16 games above .500 in August. But by the end of the month, the team had already started its collapse.

While they haven't played well this month, they still have a good grasp on a playoff spot.

"There are more roots to that thinking last year," Hurdle said. "There are more roots to the thinking of what you need to add, competitively, for your potential [opponents]."

The Pirates anticipate increasing their active roster to 34 or 35 players in September, when MLB active rosters can grow as large as 40 players, Hurdle said.

Some will join the roster Sunday, some will join Tuesday after Class AA Altoona's season ends and others will join when Class AAA Indianapolis finishes its playoff run.

But the process is a little different this season because the playoffs are a very real possibility.

Locke plans to "step back"

Starter Jeff Locke, who was optioned to Class AA Altoona Wednesday, will keep his spot in the rotation, Hurdle said.

The left-hander will use this week away from the Pirates as a chance to get some physical and mental rest.

"It's just a blow to get away from the field for a little bit," Locke said. "I'll just step back."

Locke will miss one start, but he will still be eligible for the postseason. He said he is OK with the team's decision to option him, but he would rather not take a break.

"I don't think I need one, but I hope everybody would say the same thing," he said.

Marte update

Starling Marte (right hand contusion) took one-handed swings with his left hand in the batting cage Wednesday. If healing in his right hand continues to progress, he could take two-handed swings as soon as this weekend -- a little less than two weeks after being injured.

Marte was instructed by doctors to take two weeks away from swinging.

If there are no complications, the Pirates hope to send Marte on a rehabilitation assignment late next week.

Black headed to Mets

The Pirates sent reliever Vic Black to the New York Mets as the final piece in the four-player trade that brought Marlon Byrd and John Buck to Pittsburgh, the team announced.

Black, 25, spent most of the season in Indianapolis but made his major league debut earlier this year. He made three appearances in the majors, posting a 4.50 ERA.


Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published August 30, 2013 4:00 AM


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