The St. Louis Cardinals' playoff pursuit has been aided by how they have taken advantage of the Houston Astros.
The Cardinals have won eight straight in this series, and Lance Lynn has never lost to the Astros heading into Monday night's opener of the final NL series at Minute Maid Park.
St. Louis (82-71) leads Milwaukee by 2 1/2 games for the second NL wild-card berth. The Cardinals have won six of seven to maintain control of that spot, including a three-game home sweep last week over Houston (50-103).
That sweep shouldn't be surprising since St. Louis is enjoying its longest win streak in this series since taking the final seven 1971 matchups and the first two the next year.
"They've beaten me (all) six times already since I've been here," interim manager Tony DeFrancesco told the Astros' official website. "It's frustrating for me to see that we're one hit away from beating that team. I know they're a wild-card contender."
This will be the final series between these clubs as division rivals, with the Astros joining the AL next season after entering the NL as a 1962 expansion team. This rivalry reached its peak when these clubs played in back-to-back NL championship series in 2004 and 2005.
Those days must seem like a long time ago for Houston fans. The Astros, who need to win seven of their final nine to finish better than last year's franchise-worst 56-106, have taken their last two home series, winning two of three this weekend from Pittsburgh.
Lynn (16-7, 3.79 ERA), however, figures to be a major challenge to start this three-game set. He improved to 3-0 with a 1.56 ERA in three career starts against the Astros with 6 1-3 innings last Wednesday in a 5-0 victory.
The right-hander has won two straight starts after he was demoted from the rotation for a posting a 6.56 ERA in five August outings.
"I got away from what I was all about early on in the season," Lynn said. "I got off track, and tried to start nibbling and throwing breaking pitches.
"Now, I'm going right after hitters and it's making all my stuff better."
The Cardinals were without Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran in Sunday's 6-3 win over the Cubs. Molina was out with lower back spasms while Beltran was out because of what manager Mike Matheny believed to be food poisoning.
Whether or not Molina or Beltran play Monday, the Cardinals have to like their chances of handing Houston starter Fernando Abad (0-5, 5.11) his sixth straight loss. Abad has posted a 6.53 ERA in dropping his five career starts - all since being inserted into the rotation Aug. 25.
The left-hander's lone career start against St. Louis was a career-long, five-inning stint last Tuesday in which he was charged with three runs in a 4-1 defeat.
St. Louis slugger Allen Craig is batting .372 during a 10-game road hitting streak, and he's hitting .395 with three homers and 15 RBIs against Houston in 2012.
Craig had three hits and two RBIs Sunday and shortstop Pete Kozma, filling in for the injured Rafael Furcal, hit his first career homer.
- Houston Astros