CINCINNATI -- One year ago on Friday, the Cardinals sat 10 games back in the National League Central and 10 1/2 games back in the NL Wild Card race.

Things turned out all right for St. Louis, which ended up winning the World Series.

Entering Friday night's bout with the Reds, the Cardinals sat seven games behind first-place Cincinnati in the division and hold a tight one-game lead for the second NL Wild Card spot over the Pirates.

St. Louis has entered the most pivotal stretch of the season, as it will face the Reds, Pirates and the NL-leading Nationals, all on the road.

"I say it's another series, but ... if you're not excited about this whole road trip, let alone tonight and the three games here in Cincinnati, then you probably need to check and see if you have a heartbeat," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.

The Cardinals have the potential to close the gap in the Central to four games by weekend's end, and potentially leap into the top spot in the Wild Card, depending on what the Braves do.

With only 36 games remaining on the docket, there's no denying it's crunch time in St. Louis.

"This is why you play the game. You play to win," Matheny said. "It's time to grind and figure out a way to do whatever you've got to do each day. We've been pretty consistent, we're not making too much out of one series or anything else, but absolutely, [Friday] is an exciting game."

Jackson notches first hit, hopes to have impact

CINCINNATI -- It is said that the first one is the toughest.

Cardinals shortstop Ryan Jackson got that elusive first career hit on Thursday against the Astros in a pinch-hit appearance during the fifth inning, slicing a sharp grounder to right field off Dallas Keuchel.

Jackson scored on a three-run double by Matt Holliday.

"It's always a relief to get the first one out of the way," Jackson said. "It definitely takes a little bit of an edge off. The hardest one is the first one."

With the hit, Jackson is at .167 (1-for-6) entering Friday, after being called up just two weeks ago.

He's seen action in five games since his arrival on Aug. 10, but has already taken notice of the added challenge the big leagues presents.

"They execute better," Jackson said. "They make less mistakes, and that's why they're here. They're the best of the best. It's just a matter of getting used to that and getting a feel for what they're trying to do."

The 24-year-old couldn't pick a much better section of the slate to make his impact, as the Cards are on a 10-game stretch of crucial matchups with the division-rival Reds, the Pirates, and the National League-leading Nationals.

"I'm just trying to help out in any way that I can and just soak it all in," Jackson said.

Cards recall Dickson, option Browning

CINCINNATI -- With a pivotal stretch of the season under way, the Cardinals need the best they have on their big league roster.

They're hoping Brandon Dickson can provide that, as they recalled the 27-year-old righty and optioned southpaw Barret Browning on Friday.

"It's no secret right now that we don't have room for anything but what we feel is our best," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "Right now Dickson has been throwing better than anybody in Triple-A, and that would give us a little more depth. It just gives us some more options. We were just at a point with Browning, he was having a tough stretch there of getting guys out."

Browning had watched his ERA climb from 3.14 to 5.12 in his past five outings, giving up at least one run in three of those appearances.

Dickson has made 22 starts this season for Triple-A Memphis, holding a 5-11 record and 3.55 ERA, and was slated to start Thursday before getting the news that he would be called up again.

"They told me on the field before I started that I was coming up," Dickson said. "I was actually kind of looking forward to watching this stretch. It's pretty tough and pretty important, but now it's even more exciting to be a part of it. I wasn't complaining to anybody."

Dickson had a brief stint with the Cardinals back in May, pitching in two games without allowing an earned run, but said he feels he has improved since his previous Major League showing.

"Basically, when I went back down it was just fastball command on both sides of the plate," Dickson said. "I throw two different fastballs and locate both of them on either side of the plate. I feel way better. I've pitched well the last couple games."

Worth noting

Cardinals first baseman Lance Berkman is set to make his first rehab appearance Friday night for Triple-A Memphis.

Berkman has been on the disabled list since Aug. 3 with soreness in his right knee, which was operated on earlier this year. He is expected to remain in Memphis for about a week before rejoining the big league club.