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Phillies-Cardinals Preview

AP - Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in last season's NL division series before going on to win their 11th World Series.

While the NL Central-leading Cardinals have more or less picked up where they left off, the last-place Phillies have struggled without Missouri native Ryan Howard, out since tearing his Achilles in October.

The Cardinals try for a 13th win in 19 meetings with the Phillies as the teams open a four-game set Thursday night at Busch Stadium.

St. Louis was a heavy underdog when it faced Philadelphia in the division series, but the NL's wild-card winner rallied from a 2-1 deficit to win the series and kick off an impressive October run.

Despite losing Albert Pujols in free agency and suffering a slew of injures - including Lance Berkman's torn meniscus - the Cardinals (25-19) are still one of baseball's best teams. They lead the NL with 231 runs, 56 homers and a .278 average.

"Lance, we don't know what's going to happen with him, and some other guys are battling injuries,'' right fielder Carlos Beltran said. "But we as a team have to fight with what we have and right now we're doing a pretty good job.''

On the verge of a season-best fifth consecutive victory on its own field, St. Louis is coming off a three-game home sweep of San Diego. The Cardinals outscored the Padres 14-6, rallying to take Wednesday's finale 6-3 after falling behind 3-0 in the top of the first.

Lance Lynn earned his seventh win and Beltran hit his NL-best 14th homer. David Freese also went deep, going 2 for 4 to snap a 3-for-34 slump.

The five-time reigning East champions have, in contrast, had a rough go offensively without second baseman Chase Utley and Howard, who was injured while making the Phillies' final out in 2011. Aside from hitting an impressive .264, Philadelphia (22-23) ranks in the middle of the pack in almost every offensive category.

Howard will especially be missed in this series. The slugging first baseman is a .360 lifetime hitter against his hometown team - his highest mark against any NL opponent.

The Phillies, who entered Wednesday batting just .132 with runners in scoring position during a season-worst four-game skid, regrouped with a 4-1 victory over Washington. Cole Hamels threw eight scoreless innings and Shane Victorino went 2 for 3 with a homer and a pair of RBIs.

"Tonight's win was big for us," manager Charlie Manuel. "We're going to win some more. We ain't going nowhere."

Philadelphia now turns to Joe Blanton (4-4, 3.74 ERA), who after going 3-0 with a 2.10 ERA over a four-start stretch, was roughed up in Saturday's 7-5 loss to Boston. The right-hander gave up seven runs and a career-worst four homers - two more than he surrendered in his previous nine starts - over 4 1-3 innings.

"I threw a lot of pitches down the middle, not good results when you do that," Blanton said. "They have a lot of good hitters and when you make mistakes, a lot of times a lineup like that will make you pay."

Since going 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA over his first three starts against St. Louis, Blanton has compiled a 4.61 mark while losing his last two - both of which came in 2010.

Blanton will be opposed by Jake Westbrook (4-3, 2.41). He allowed four runs - two earned - and six hits over 6 1-3 innings Saturday in a 6-0 road loss to the Dodgers, failing to overcome a couple of errors behind him.

"It definitely makes it tougher, but it's our job as pitchers to pick up our defense," Westbrook told the team's official website. "Physical errors happen. That's part of the game. It's up to us to make pitches after that and get out of jams."

Westbrook went 1-1 with a 1.74 ERA in two starts against the Phillies last season. He lasted just 3 1-3 innings in a 9-2 road loss Sept. 17, allowing two runs, five hits and five walks.

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