Cardinals-Reds Preview

The Associated Press

Thanks to David Freese, the transition for the St. Louis Cardinals from Albert Pujols hasn't been too difficult.

Freese and the Cardinals will go for a fourth straight win Wednesday when they close their three-game series against the Cincinnati Reds.

Despite losing one of the majors' most feared power hitters, St. Louis has been extremely productive at the plate. The Cardinals improved to 5-1 with a 3-1 win over Cincinnati on Tuesday, as Freese and Carlos Beltran homered to back Kyle Lohse's six strong innings.

St. Louis has hit 11 homers and is batting .310 while averaging 5.7 runs. The Cardinals hit two homers, batted .231 and averaged 2.5 runs in opening 2011 with four losses in six games.

Freese, who won World Series MVP honors after driving in seven runs while batting .348 as the Cardinals beat Texas in seven games, has picked up where he left off. He has three homers and 10 RBIs while hitting .444, helping St. Louis get off to its best start since 2008.

Freese is the 11th Cardinals player since 1921 to drive in 10 runs in the first six games.

Beltran also has hit three home runs.

"If those guys keep doing that, we're going to have a pretty good club," first-year manager Mike Matheny said.

While a hot offense and strong pitching have the Cardinals off to a good start, the Reds (2-3) have seven hits in the first two games of this series.

Joey Votto, who got 10 years and $225 million added to his contract earlier this month, continues to struggle. He went 1 for 3 on Tuesday, driving in a run in the sixth with a sacrifice fly, and is batting .188 with one homer and six strikeouts.

Brandon Phillips, who agreed to a deal through 2017 worth $72.5 million Tuesday, is expected to miss a few games after straining his hamstring in Monday's 7-1 loss.

"We've got a few guys struggling at the plate," manager Dusty Baker said. "They just need to relax and do what they're capable of doing. This team can hit, and we're going to hit."

Cincinnati may not find it any easier to score runs Wednesday against Jaime Garcia, who is 6-1 with a 3.13 ERA in nine appearances versus the Reds, including 2-1 with a 1.42 ERA in three starts last year.

The left-hander was strong in his season debut against Milwaukee on Friday, giving up two runs and five hits in six innings of an 11-5 victory.

Not many Reds have had success against Garcia. Votto is 2 for 16 with five strikeouts while Jay Bruce, hitting .316 to start the season, also has two hits in 16 at-bats.

Hits may be at a premium for both teams, though, if Johnny Cueto pitches like he did in his first start of the year. Cueto gave up three hits in seven innings of a 4-0 win over Miami on Thursday.

Cueto is looking to build on a solid 2011 in which he went 9-5 with a 2.31 ERA in 24 starts.

"The young man is maturing big-time before our eyes," Baker said. "He doesn't fight Johnny Cueto anymore. Before, his own worst enemy was himself."

The right-hander went 1-1 with a 2.60 ERA in four starts against the Cardinals last season.