It was almost exactly one month ago when the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates were in a virtual tie with the Milwaukee Brewers atop the NL Central.
The Cardinals and Pirates have fallen well off the Brewers' pace, and it might be too late for either to catch up as they begin a four-game series at Busch Stadium on Thursday night.
Going for the series sweep in Pittsburgh that would have given them sole possession of the Central lead, the Cardinals fell 4-3 in 10 innings on July 24 to create a three-way tie with the Pirates and Brewers.
Milwaukee, though, has gone 24-5 since to build a seemingly insurmountable 10-game lead over second-place St. Louis (67-63), which has dropped 10 of 15 after losing three straight this week to visiting Los Angeles.
"Especially when you get swept at home, that's as bad as it can get," manager Tony La Russa said following Wednesday's 9-4 defeat.
The Pirates (61-68) are in a far more precarious spot, facing a 15 1/2-game deficit, but they avoided falling further back Wednesday by winning 2-0 and splitting a four-game set with Milwaukee.
"Against a club doing what they're doing, we'll take (a split)," reliever Jason Grilli told the Pirates' official website.
The Pirates, though, will have to go 21-12 to finish above .500 for the first time in 19 years. If that's going to happen, they'll have to play better on the road, where they've lost nine of 12.
Pittsburgh opens a stretch of 10 of 11 as the visitor Thursday - it has a home makeup game against the Dodgers next week - with Charlie Morton (9-6, 3.42 ERA) on the mound.
The right-hander is 6-1 with a 1.98 ERA in 11 starts against divisional foes after allowing two runs over six innings in Saturday's 5-3 victory over Cincinnati.
"He went out there against that team today with far from his best stuff, but delivered a very gutsy performance, a very gritty performance," manager Clint Hurdle said.
Morton is 2-0 with a 3.86 ERA in his last four starts against St. Louis after going 0-3 with an 11.70 ERA in the first three.
Second baseman Skip Schumaker is 9 for 17 off Morton, and he's 10 for 29 (.345) against the Pirates this season. Schumaker is 13 for 29 (.448) in his last nine games overall.
With Cardinals starters posting a 5.43 ERA during a 3-8 skid, La Russa needs another solid outing from Edwin Jackson (2-2, 4.45) in the series opener.
The right-hander has received an average of 5.01 runs in five starts since being acquired from Toronto, but the Cardinals gave him no room for error in Saturday's 3-0 loss in Chicago.
"He's done what we've asked him to do since we got him," third baseman David Freese told the Cardinals' official website after Jackson's seven-inning outing. "... We're just not getting it done - plain and simple."
Andrew McCutchen (11 for 33) and Neil Walker (11 for 35) have been getting it done in nine games against the Cardinals this season, with each hitting two homers and driving in five.
McCutchen is 2 for 4 with a homer off Jackson.