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The St. Louis Cardinals are in a stretch where they have an opportunity to not only further solidify their hold on the National League Central lead but also make a move to catch the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves for the No. 2 seed in the league.

So far, not so great.

St. Louis goes from splitting a four-game series at home against the bottom team in the National League, the Washington Nationals, to facing the second-worst team in the league when it opens a series Friday against the host Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Cardinals (81-57), with a chance to take the series against the Nationals on Thursday, instead got routed 11-6.

One bright side was catcher Yadier Molina, who homered twice. He is 9-for-18 with seven RBIs in five games this month and could be revving up as he finishes his final season.

“He smells it, and he’s going to go after it,” St. Louis manager Oliver Marmol said. We’re seeing a really productive version of Yad right now.”

Pittsburgh snapped a four-game losing streak on Tuesday with an 8-2 win over the Mets, the top team in the NL East, but then got swept by the same club in a doubleheader on Wednesday, 5-1 and 10-0.

The Pirates (50-86) have lost 14 of their past 17, playing with several inexperienced players in a rebuild.

That makes silver linings important.

“We have a bunch of young kids,” Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton said. “So we’ve got to focus on the positives and focus on the things we’ve done well, and then the things that we didn’t do well we have to highlight.

“By highlight, I mean we have to teach (them) and talk about them. We can’t let those go by the wayside, because we have a lot of guys that have very little experience here, and they’re learning and getting experience at the big-league level.”

In the series opener, St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas (11-10, 3.32 ERA) is scheduled to oppose Pittsburgh right-hander Roansy Contreras (4-4, 3.41).

Mikolas is coming off a strong outing. He pitched eight scoreless, two-hit innings Sunday in a win against the Chicago Cubs, walking one and striking out three.

Against Pittsburgh, Mikolas is 5-4 with a 2.83 ERA in 17 career games, 15 of them starts, including 1-0 with a 1.46 ERA in two starts this year.

Contreras, since his latest recall from Triple-A Indianapolis, is 1-2 with a 2.63 ERA in four starts. That includes giving up one run in six innings Saturday in a no-decision against the Toronto Blue Jays. He fanned five and walked two.

The outing included one of the teaching moments Shelton is looking for. In the fourth, Toronto had runners on second and third with no outs. Contreras gave up a run on a groundout but otherwise got out of the jam.

“Anytime in a situation like that, I just try to remain calm,” Contreras said. “Not try to focus on that stuff but focus more on just executing my pitches and dominating the hitter.”

Contreras is 0-0 with a 7.50 ERA in two games, one start, against St. Louis, both outings occurring this year. The start came on June 15, when he gave up three runs and six hits in 4 1/3 innings.

–Field Level Media