(Sports Network) - The St. Louis Cardinals were unable to take advantage of an opportunity to close the gap in the National League Central race during their last series. With Chris Carpenter on the mound and another last-place opponent on the docket, the defending division champions will try to bounce back when they play the first of four straight meetings with the Washington Nationals tonight.
The Cardinals appeared to have a good chance of getting their 10-game road trip off to a strong start by opening up the trek against the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, but lost two of three matchups to the team with the majors' worst record. In doing so, St. Louis failed to gain ground on first-place Cincinnati in the division standings after the Reds dropped two of three bouts to San Francisco in their latest series.
St. Louis continues to sit 3 1/2 games off the pace in the NL Central, while trailing both the Giants and Philadelphia by one game for the lead in the league's Wild Card chase.
The Cardinals' bats were stymied by Pittsburgh's Daniel McCutchen in Wednesday's finale, with the emergency starter yielding just three hits over six shutout innings to lead the Bucs to a 5-2 triumph.
Neil Walker gave McCutchen all the support he would need by belting a three- run triple off St. Louis starter Jake Westbrook in the bottom of the third inning. Jose Tabata added an RBI single in the fourth to extend the margin to 4-0.
Westbrook (1-2) lasted six innings and was charged with four runs on seven hits for St. Louis, which has now lost seven of its last 10 games.
"They made plays when they needed to," first baseman Albert Pujols said of the Pirates on St. Louis' official site. "They got some big hits when they needed them, and that's it. You can't disrespect the other ballclub because of the year that they're having. We didn't play [well enough] to win the series. They did."
Pujols went 0-for-4 in the loss, keeping the reigning NL MVP at 399 home runs for his illustrious career.
The struggling Cards now once again turn to Carpenter, who's come through countless times for the club during this season's second half, in hopes of getting back on track. The standout hurler has been sensational since the All- Star break, having compiled a 5-1 record and a terrific 1.99 earned run average in an eight-star stretch.
Carpenter notched another victory this past Saturday, when the veteran righty limited San Francisco to a run and five hits over 7 1/3 innings to improve to 14-4 with a 2.88 ERA on the season. He's held the opposition to two runs or less in six of his eight outings following the break.
The 2005 NL Cy Young Award recipient has also garnered plenty of success when taking on the Washington/Montreal franchise. Carpenter sports a 6-1 record with a 3.30 ERA in 11 career encounters with the Nationals/Expos, which includes a May 18 victory in St. Louis where he surrendered only two runs -- one earned -- through eight innings.
Carpenter's team has had its way with the Nationals in the recent past as well. After sweeping a two-game set between these teams in May, St. Louis has now won six straight times in this series and is 13-2 against Washington since the start of the 2008 campaign.
Washington also enters this series mired in a slump, with the NL East cellar- dwellers having lost four straight and 13 of their last 17 contests. The Nats were just dealt a three-game sweep at home by the Chicago Cubs that was capped by last night's 4-0 setback.
The Nationals mustered a mere four singles against three Chicago pitchers, with Ryan Dempster limiting Washington to two hits and striking out eight over the first seven innings.
Nats starter Jason Marquis (0-7) turned in a strong effort as well in a losing cause, with the former Cub working a season-high 7 1/3 innings and permitting only one run.
Chicago broke the game open by hitting a pair of homers in the eighth, with Aramis Ramirez connecting for a two-run shot off reliever Tyler Clippard and Alfonso Soriano delivering a solo blast against Sean Burnett.
With Marquis able to provide Washington an encouraging performance last night, the team will be hoping for another from Jordan Zimmermann when the young right-hander makes his first major league start in more than a year. The 24- year-old last pitched in the bigs on July 18, 2009, taking a loss to the Cubs, and underwent Tommy John surgery the following month that sidelined him for the remainder of last season and much of this one.
Zimmermann seems to have made a successful comeback from the procedure, however. In four rehab starts for Triple-A Syracuse this month, he's allowed only one run and eight hits over a combined 17 innings, and pronounced himself ready to go by firing five scoreless frames of one-hit ball on Friday.
A second-round pick of Washington in the 2007 draft, Zimmermann registered a 3-5 record and a 4.63 ERA in 16 starts as a rookie last year before getting hurt. One of those defeats came to the Cardinals at Nationals Park, where he was reached for five runs and served up three homers -- including one to Pujols -- in 5 2/3 innings.