When the Cardinals left Cincinnati a month or so ago, licking their wounds after a three-game sweep, all the talk revolved around whether the club could right the ship and run with the Reds in the race for the National League Central Division crown.
Since then, things have taken a dramatic turn. The Redbirds have become the hottest team in the National League -- currently with the best record in all of baseball. And it's the Reds who have fallen off the pace, opening the door for the Brewers to move into second place to challenge St. Louis.
As they enter a three-game set in Milwaukee, the Cardinals are 38-26 compared to the Brew Crew's 35-28 record -- that's a 2 1/2 game advantage. The Redbirds are a very respectable 20-14 on the road. But the Brewers have built their rally on the best home record in baseball -- 22-9. Their bats must be bratwurst-fueled because Milwaukee is as terrible on the road -- 13-19 -- is it is good at Miller Park.
Streaking sluggers are the story for both clubs.
Cardinals fans have enjoyed watching Albert Pujols' bat come to life over the last couple of weeks which include a four-game home run streak. Pujols may have maintained that nothing was wrong with his swing over the first two months of the season. But his body language and energy level tell a different story. He's been very animated and agressive on the base paths and his surly demeanor has been replaced with the perkiness a high-fiving, back slapping, home run hitting cheerleader.
Lance Berkman is hitting machine since getting a cortizone shot before the Cubs series. He's batting .350 over his last five games with four homers and nine runs batted in. Berkman's lifetime batting numbers against Milwaukee: .318, 25 homers and 96 RBIs in 152 games.
But Milwaukee hasn't been without fireworks. Prince Fielder, who like Pujols is hoping to break the bank this off-season on the free agent market, is tied for the National League lead with 17 homers. He's got a .301 batting average and 55 runs batted in to go along with the longballs. In his last 10 games, Fielder has collected two hits four times and three hits in another match.
Kyle Lohse (7-2, 2.41) will take on former Cardinals farmhand Chris Narveson (2-4, 4.85) in the series opener. Lohse was roughed up for 11 hits and four runs in 5 1/3 innings in his last start. But he pitched very well until hitting the wall in a tough sixth inning on a very hot day in St. Louis. The Cardinals managed to claw out of 5-4 win, giving the club a victory in four straight starts by Lohse. Narveson has won only one of his last five decisions -- and that victory came on May 14. The lefty is 1-2 with a 3.75 ERA in his career against St. Louis.
Saturday's middle game of the series is a match-up of former Cy Young Award winners. Chris Carpenter (1-5, 4.25) hurls for the Cardinals against Zack Grienke (5-1, 4.83). A victim of poor support in nearly every game he's pitched, Carpenter has pitched the Birds to victory in his last two starts. Unfortunately, the Cardinals didn't score the go-ahead runs until after he departed, so the fine effort doesn't show up in his record. In his career against Milwaukee Carp is 11-11 with a 4.87 ERA. After starting the season on the disabled list, Grienke has offered a ton of stability to the Milwaukee rotation. He's won five straight decisions and the Brewers have won the last six games he started. Grienke is 3-2 against the Cardinals, dating back to his Kansas City days, with a 3.75 ERA.
In the finale Jake Westbrook (6-3, 5.01) will take on Shane Marcum (6-2, 2.58). Westbrook has a lousy ERA and he doesn't strike out many. But the Cardinals win when he pitches. The Redbirds have been victorious in seven of his last nine starts. Marcum's pitched well but he's had little run support lately as the Brewers have dropped his last three starts. He's 3-1 with a 4.03 ERA at home this season.