A slow start to the second half put the St. Louis Cardinals in a back-and-forth battle for first place in the NL Central. The club’s performance over the last two weeks has given it some breathing room.
After taking their biggest lead in the division since the first day after the All-Star break, the Cardinals go for their 11th win in 14 games - and season high-tying fifth straight victory - Tuesday night against the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium.
St. Louis (63-51) finished the first half with a 2 1/2 game division lead but dropped six of its first 10 games after the break, alternating with Chicago for first place.
The Cardinals have responded by winning 10 of 13 to pull three games ahead of the second-place Cubs, their biggest lead since July 17.
Matt Holliday(notes) drove in the tying run with a sacrifice fly in the first inning and Colby Rasmus(notes) drew a bases-loaded walk to plate Yadier Molina(notes) for the go-ahead run in the fifth inning of a 4-1 series-opening win Monday night.
“It’s not quite the home stretch but we’re getting close,” said St. Louis shortstop Brendan Ryan(notes), who drove in an insurance run with a sixth-inning double. “We want to take advantage of every opportunity we can out there. We just want to accumulate wins.”
That’s been a challenge for the Reds (48-63) lately. Though they entered this series with three wins in their previous four games, they’ve still lost 16 of 20 since July 20. They’re batting .195 in that stretch, during which they’ve been held to two runs or fewer eight times.
First baseman Joey Votto(notes) has been part of the problem. One of Cincinnati’s best hitters all year, Votto has batted .146 with 15 strikeouts over his last 13 games, seeing his season average dip 34 points to .316.
Votto homered in one of his two career at-bats against St. Louis’ Mitchell Boggs(notes) (1-0, 3.29 ERA), who will start Tuesday in place of Todd Wellemeyer(notes). Wellemeyer’s return to the rotation will be put on hold after the right-hander complained of a sore elbow following a bullpen session.
Boggs, optioned to Triple-A Memphis after starting for St. Louis on July 31, returned to the Cardinals on Monday. St. Louis has won each of the right-hander’s five starts this year, but Boggs was tagged for seven runs in five innings of his minor league start Thursday.
Boggs made his only previous start against Cincinnati last June 10, holding the Reds to two runs in five innings of a 7-2 victory - his first in the majors.
The Reds will counter with Justin Lehr(notes) (1-0, 1.93), who threw his first complete game in his second career start Wednesday. The right-hander, who spent parts of three seasons as a reliever in the majors from 2004-06, held the Cubs to four hits in the 4-0 victory.
Lehr hadn’t previously thrown a shutout in any level of pro ball.
“There were times I got close, but there’s really no rhyme or reason,” said Lehr, who dabbed at his eyes after the final out.
Lehr hasn’t allowed an earned run against the Cardinals in four relief appearances totaling five innings.