By DAN BURCH
(AP) -- Playing one of their most important late-summer series in years, the Pirates gained a crucial game on the St. Louis Cardinals in the opener and hope to extend their lead in the NL wild-card standings when the teams continue their three-game set in St. Louis on Saturday.
In contention this late in August for the first time in 15 years, the Pirates handled the pressure on the road and beat the defending World Series champions 2-1 on Friday night, moving two games ahead of St. Louis in the standings.
Pittsburgh (66-53) is currently second in the wild-card race behind Atlanta, while the Cardinals (64-55) - who had hoped to pull even with the Pirates for the final wild card - are instead neck-and-neck with San Francisco for third. The Pirates remained six games behind Cincinnati in the NL Central after the first-place Reds beat the Cubs on Friday.
On the same day Pittsburgh mailed out instructions to season ticket holders on how to purchase potential playoff tickets, the Pirates played like they belonged. James McDonald limited St. Louis to two hits in six scoreless innings, and Pittsburgh scored two runs in the fourth on a passed ball and wild pitch.
"This was a huge step forward for us," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We're going to need (McDonald) to get something done this year, I think."
The Pirates had lost six of seven before rebounding by winning the final of a series against the Dodgers and then the opener of this set. Erik Bedard (7-12, 4.56 ERA) tries to keep the momentum going when he starts Saturday. The left-hander is 1-2 with a 4.86 ERA in three career starts against the Cardinals - all this year, his first in the NL.
The Cardinals continue to struggle on offense, having dropped their last two contests by 2-1 scores. Matt Holliday is mired in a 4-for-45 funk while Carlos Beltran snapped a 2-for-20 slump with a hit in the seventh inning and scored St. Louis' only run.
"Bottom line is there are no excuses," leadoff man Jon Jay said after going 0 for 3 with a walk. "We'll turn the page. (Saturday) is a big game."
The Cardinals could get some good news, as catcher Yadier Molina might return to the lineup after missing three games with a back injury.
"Yesterday, I couldn't swing," Molina said Friday. "Today, I was swinging way better. Hopefully, tomorrow I can give you good news."
Scheduled starter Lance Lynn (13-5, 3.65) could certainly use Molina's game-calling ability behind the plate. The All-Star right-hander has given up 16 runs in 22 innings over his last four outings. He's especially struggled in the first inning, giving up three runs in the opening frame in three of those starts.
"You have to do something proactive, that's kind of been the message with Lance," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We've got to do something, don't just sit back idly and expect the first inning to change."
These teams have split their 10 meetings this season, though Pittsburgh has won four of the last five, all in St. Louis.
Updated August 18, 2012