As the two teams ahead of them in the NL Central battled for first place this week, the St. Louis Cardinals have been doing their part to stay in the thick of the playoff race.
The Cardinals will go for their first four game road sweep of the Atlanta Braves on Thursday.
St. Louis (61-49) went into the week four games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs in the NL Central and three games in back of the Milwaukee Brewers for the wild card. Those two teams began a four-game series in Milwaukee on Monday.
The Cardinals have done a good job in trying to keep pace in the division by taking the first three games against the Braves (49-58).
St. Louis has limited Atlanta to eight runs in the series after it gave up 24 in New York last weekend. It’s been the Cardinals’ offense, however, that has carried the team despite center fielder Rick Ankiel (.282, 22 homers, 59 RBIs) not starting the last four games due to a sore abdomen.
The Cardinals scored a season-high 12 runs on Monday, put up eight more Tuesday, then pounded out 12 hits on Wednesday in a 7-2 win, welcoming pitcher Chris Carpenter back for his first start since opening day 2007.
Outfielder Joe Mather - in the lineup due to Ankiel’s injury - has gone 5-for-15 with two homers and four RBIs in this series, including a two-run shot Wednesday.
Mather hasn’t been alone in driving the Cardinals’ offense. Albert Pujols is hitting .524 (11-for-21) with three homers and nine RBIs in his last five games, and Yadier Molina is 7-for-15 with four RBIs during this series.
“We’re just getting big hits after big hits,” Pujols told the Cardinals’ official Web site.
St. Louis has never swept a four-game series in Atlanta since the Braves’ franchise relocated from Milwaukee in 1966. Joel Pineiro (3-4, 4.79 ERA) will try to help the Cardinals get the job done Wednesday, but he hasn’t pitched well lately.
Pineiro is 1-1 since June 27, but has a 6.49 ERA in six starts. He hasn’t factored in the decision in three starts since July 8, most recently giving up five runs and 10 hits in four innings on Saturday in St. Louis’ 10-8, 14-inning win over the Mets.
He’ll face a Braves team that’s missing some key components as it fades from playoff contention for the third straight season. Atlanta placed Chipper Jones on the 15-day DL on Monday, traded first baseman Mark Teixeira to the Los Angeles Angels for Casey Kotchman and a minor leaguer Tuesday, and found out Wednesday that star pitcher Tim Hudson will likely need Tommy John surgery.
Kotchman went 0-for-5 in his Braves’ debut Wednesday, but the St. Petersburg, Fla., native is happy to be playing in Atlanta despite being traded from baseball’s best team.
“I’m really excited to be a Brave now,” said Kotchman. “This is closer to home, obviously, so I’m really excited to be here.”
Atlanta will send Mike Hampton (0-0, 13.50) to the mound on Wednesday. He made his first start in the majors since 2005 on Saturday, giving up six runs over four innings in Philadelphia. He didn’t get a decision in the Braves’ 10-9 loss.
“It’s a great feeling to be back,” Hampton told the team’s official Web site. “It’s bittersweet, because you want to come back and pitch good enough to win. I didn’t do that.”
Hampton is 10-8 with a 3.59 ERA in 26 games - 21 starts - against St. Louis.