Cardinals-Padres Preview

The Associated Press

The St. Louis Cardinals hold a slim lead for the second NL wild-card spot and are set to begin a crucial seven-game West Coast trip.

Given their recent struggles on the road - and those of starter Jaime Garcia - the trip may have come at a challenging time.

Losers of five of six away from home, the Cardinals open a three-game series with the San Diego Padres on Monday night.

St. Louis avoided a sweep and ended a three-game skid with a 5-4, 10-inning win over Milwaukee on Sunday, blowing a two-run lead in the ninth inning before Matt Carpenter scored on Allen Craig's single.

Carlos Beltran ended an 0-for-14 slump and earned his first extra-base hit in 50 at-bats with his 29th home run in the first - one of his two hits on the day.

"It was good for me to go out there and get a couple hits,'' Beltran said. "Lately, it's been a battle at the plate.''

There's a battle in the standings as well, as the Cardinals (75-65) hold a 1 1/2-game lead over Los Angeles for the league's second wild-card berth.

St. Louis, which heads to Chavez Ravine for a critical four-game series beginning Thursday, swept the Padres from May 21-23 at Busch Stadium. San Diego, though, is 22-14 since the start of August, so St. Louis isn't going to look past this series.

"(That) would be extremely unwise for us to do that," manager Mike Matheny told the team's official website. "The guys have obviously been watching and understand that (San Diego) is playing well right now. Never make that mistake."

The Cardinals have struggled away from home lately, much like Garcia (4-6, 4.16 ERA) for most of the season. The left-hander has gone 1-4 with a 7.76 ERA in his last five road starts - two of which have come since he returned from the 60-day disabled list.

"You don't ignore trends. Statistics are what they are, it's data,'' Matheny said.

Garcia won his first start in four tries since coming off the DL after allowing an unearned run in 7 1-3 innings of a 5-1 victory over New York on Tuesday.

Garcia has pitched well versus the Padres no matter the venue, going 1-0 with a 1.67 ERA in four starts. He allowed three hits in six scoreless innings of a 2-1 loss in his only start in San Diego on May 26, 2010.

He'll be tasked with slowing down Chase Headley, who hit a seventh-inning grand slam in San Diego's 8-2 victory over Arizona on Sunday. Headley has an NL-leading 102 RBIs, the most for a Padre since Adrian Gonzalez drove in 119 runs in 2008.

Carlos Quentin followed Headley's slam with a homer for the team's first back-to-back shots this season.

"That's the great thing about our lineup right now is (teams) can't just sit there and pitch around me because we have other guys who are swinging the bat so well,'' Headley said.

Headley is hitting .394 with five homers and 19 RBIs over his last seven for the Padres (66-75), who have won four of five and will send Eric Stults to the mound Monday.

Stults (5-2, 2.35) allowed one run in six innings of San Diego's 6-3, 11-inning victory in Los Angeles on Tuesday. The left-hander, who has never faced the Cardinals, is 4-0 with a 1.66 ERA in six starts since rejoining the rotation Aug. 6.

The Padres have won six of the last seven meetings with the Cardinals, who may not have David Freese in the lineup again after he missed Sunday's game with a mild left ankle sprain.

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