The St. Louis Cardinals are comfortably in first place in the National League Central, but they haven’t taken advantage of playing against the two worst teams in the league this week.

After splitting a four-game series against Washington at home, the visiting Cardinals (81-58) dropped their series opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-2 on Friday.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had a little stretch where we haven’t come up with a big hit,” said Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, adding that he didn’t deliver any rousing message to his club.

“We’ll be just fine,” he said. “We’ll come out (Saturday) and do exactly what we did (Friday) as far as preparation and get after it.”

St. Louis is 8-3 against the Pirates this season.

The Cardinals could have veterans Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols back in the lineup Saturday. They were given Friday off, although Pujols pinch hit in the sixth inning with runners at first and second and a three-run deficit – and grounded into a double play.

Pittsburgh (51-86) wasn’t exactly a candidate to slow the Cardinals his weekend, going 1-5 in the first six games of a nine-game, 10-day homestand and losing six of seven before Friday’s win.

Rookie shortstop Oneil Cruz was 3-for-5 Friday in the series opener with a two-run triple and an RBI single, and was a homer shy of hitting for the cycle.

He hasn’t been the problem for the Pirates lately offensively. He has a six-game hitting streak, going 12 for 26 (.462) with two doubles, two triples, two homers and seven RBIs during that stretch.

“I think it’s just swinging at the right pitches,” Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton said. “When he hits the ball, he hits the ball hard all the time.”

Saturday, St. Louis right-hander Jack Flaherty (0-1, 4.15 ERA) is expected to start vs. Pittsburgh right-hander JT Brubaker (3-11, 4.35).

Flaherty will be making just his fifth appearance of the season after shoulder problems, but it will be his second start in six days.

Monday, he took a loss against Washington, mostly because of a lack of run support. In his first game since June 26, he pitched five innings, allowing one run and six hits, with six strikeouts and one walk in his longest outing of the year.

“Some good, some bad,” Flaherty said. “Made pitches when I needed to for the most part. When I was ahead, good things happened. When I was behind, they strung some hits together.”

Marmol had a rosier review.

“Jack was encouraging,” Marmol said. “I thought he did a nice job. It looked good; it was promising. The fastball plays, the (velocity) was there, shape of the other stuff was also there. Command in and out, but it’s only going to improve from here.”

Flaherty is 8-1 with a 2.50 ERA in 12 career starts against the Pirates.

Brubaker, in his most recent start on Sunday, did not get a decision after giving up three runs (two earned) in 5 1/3 innings against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Against St. Louis, Brubaker is 0-6 with a 6.19 ERA in seven career games, six of them starts. That includes going 0-2 this season, giving up a combined seven runs (six earned) in 8 1/3 innings.

–Field Level Media