With a little over a month left to go in the regular season, the Pittsburgh Pirates aren't exactly right where they want to be.
With one successful series, however, that can all change for a club that has struggled play consistently in 2014.
The Pirates are set to open up a three-game series as the St. Louis Cardinals come to town Monday night at 7:05 p.m. ET in what could be the defining series of the regular season for Pittsburgh.
The Pirates sit 3.5 games behind the Cardinals, who lead the wild card race with a 70-59 record. More importantly, they are just 1.5 games behind the San Francisco Giants for the second wild-card spot.
This is one of those series that has the potential to bring the Pirates that much closer to the organization's second-straight postseason appearance. On the other hand, poor play could result in the St. Louis Cardinals pulling away early.
Two former aces will go at it Monday, as Francisco Liriano looks to defeat John Lackey and the Cardinals.
Liriano's 3-10 record in 2014 does not give him the credit he deserves. He had pitched brilliantly over the last two months until his last outing when he gave up seven runs in just four innings—en route to his tenth loss on the season.
On the other hand, Lackey has pitched well in three of his last four starts since being traded from the Boston Red Sox. His only bad outing with his new team came on August 9 when the Baltimore Orioles tagged him for nine runs in five innings pitched.
The Pirates are coming off of a crucial loss Sunday to the first-place Milwaukee Brewers, who now sit 5.0 games ahead of Pittsburgh but just 1.5 games ahead of the surging Cardinals in the National League Central Division.
If the Cardinals were to sweep the Pirates in this next series, Pittsburgh would fall to 6.5 games behind St. Louis for the first wild-card spot, and these two teams only play each other three more times after this over the remainder of the season.
Even if that does happen, but the Pirates pick it up and play well enough to clinch the second wild card, they almost certainly do not want to travel to an opposing ballpark to play a one-game playoff.
Having won just three of its last ten games, Pittsburgh is in a hole. However, the Pirates can climb their way back into the light if they win this series against the Cardinals. After all, a series sweep in their favor would put them just 0.5 games behind the Cardinals for the first wild-card spot.
Even if the Pirates can take two out of three games from St. Louis, the team would be just 2.5 games behind.
The Pirates have just 32 games remaining in the regular season, and while that is still plenty of time to catch up to the teams in front of them, they have to start playing better right away.
This is undoubtedly one of the most crucial series this season for them.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.