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AP - Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals are locked in a contentious NL Central race, and they have plenty of matchups with the other two contenders over the next two weeks.

In the first of 13 games against the other top division rivals, the Cardinals will try to take sole possession of first place for the first time this month while topping the Cincinnati Reds on Monday night.

The Cardinals (76-54) haven't been alone in first place since July 29 and could have ended that drought by finishing off a four-game sweep of Atlanta. Instead, they fell 5-2 on Sunday to the NL East leader and remained tied for first with Pittsburgh after the Pirates' 4-0 loss in San Francisco the same day.

"We were looking to get the win and couldn't get it, but it was a really good series for us, winning three games out of four against a tough team," first baseman Allen Craig told the team's website.

In his return to the rotation, Tyler Lyons (2-4, 5.09 ERA) will try to help St. Louis keep at least a share of the division lead and add to a slim 2 1/2-game edge over third-place Cincinnati (74-57).

The rookie left-hander, starting in place of an injured Jake Westbrook, is 0-4 with a 7.66 ERA in his last five major league starts after winning his first two. Lyons gave up four runs over 5 1-3 innings in a 4-2 loss in Cincinnati on June 8.

"(I'm) just sticking with what I was doing down (in the minors) and trying to use that here," he told the team's website.

The Cardinals, however, haven't dropped many games to the Reds lately, winning eight of the 12 matchups this season and 12 of the past 18. They've also won 10 of 14 overall.

The Reds enter this series having won 13 of 19 but dropped two of three to lowly Milwaukee this weekend. They were shut out for eight innings in a 3-1 loss Sunday.

"When we lose a series to any team at this point, we feel it's a missed opportunity," outfielder Jay Bruce, said.

Joey Votto had one of his team's five hits and is batting .410 (16 for 39) during a 12-game hit streak against the Cardinals. He doubled twice off Lyons in the win in June.

Yadier Molina, meanwhile, is batting .400 (14 for 35) during a nine-game hit streak against the Reds and will get to face Mike Leake (11-5, 3.12), who had a miserable outing against St. Louis on Aug. 4.

Leake, 1-1 with a 6.26 ERA in his four starts this month, was tagged for a season-high seven runs over five innings in a 15-2 drubbing. He earned a 10-7 victory over Arizona in his latest outing Wednesday, giving up four runs over six innings.

In his first start in St. Louis, Leake might want to pitch carefully to David Freese, who is 7 for 13 lifetime against the right-hander. Molina has a home run and a double in his last eight at-bats versus Leake while Carlos Beltran is 2 for 18, his worst showing against any active pitcher he's faced at least 18 times.

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